Why Russians Aren’t Smiling at You in Sochi

The first rule about smiling at Russians is you do not smile at Russians.

Their traditional dolls will smile at you though.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Feb. 7, 2014, 8:18 a.m.

When Ed Leigh ar­rived in So­chi to cov­er the Winter Olympics, something struck him as odd: None of the Rus­si­ans there re­turned his smiles.

When Leigh asked a nat­ive why that was, the man told him, “In Rus­sia only two types of people smile: idi­ots and rich people — and rich people don’t walk on the street.”

For Rus­si­ans, a smile in pub­lic is not the po­lite ex­pres­sion that Amer­ic­ans re­flex­ively of­fer strangers on the street. A smil­ing per­son must have a good reas­on for do­ing it, and it should be ob­vi­ous what that reas­on is. When people smile without hes­it­a­tion — for no reas­on — Rus­si­ans find those grins ar­ti­fi­cial or in­sin­cere. And they think those people have a few screws loose.

Amer­ic­ans, on the oth­er hand, seem to smile for any reas­on at all. The “Amer­ic­an smile” has a long-stand­ing bad repu­ta­tion in Rus­sia, ex­plained Mi­chael Bo­hm, the opin­ion-page ed­it­or of The Mo­scow Times, in an in-depth 2011 story on the mat­ter.

Na­tion­al dis­trust of the West­ern­ized grin dates back to the early So­viet era, when anti-U.S. pro­pa­ganda aboun­ded. Later, in the 1980s, So­viet me­dia reg­u­larly blas­ted re­ports called “Their Cus­toms,” ex­plain­ing that Amer­ic­ans, a power-hungry people, smiled to de­ceive oth­ers. Be­hind that smile was an “im­per­i­al­ist wolf re­veal­ing its fe­ro­cious teeth.” One prime ex­ample of that, Bo­hm writes, came in 1990, when then-Sec­ret­ary of State James Baker used his “charm­ing, cun­ning Texas smile” to trick former So­viet lead­er Mikhail Gorbachev in­to agree­ing to a uni­fied Ger­many in ex­change for the U.S. halt­ing NATO’s east­ward ex­pan­sion.

“There’s so much to be happy about here!” the So­viet gov­ern­ment told its people — guar­an­teed jobs and hous­ing, free edu­ca­tion, a nuc­le­ar war chest to pro­tect the em­pire. The people, frown­ing as they waited in line to buy bread or milk, re­spect­fully dis­agreed.

Rus­sia’s poker face “has little to do with Dosto­evsky or the cold cli­mate,” Bo­hm says, and much more to do with cen­tur­ies of gov­ern­ment op­pres­sion and cor­rup­tion. The very form of gov­ern­ment can dic­tate how its people con­trol their ex­pres­sion of emo­tions, ac­cord­ing to Dav­id Mat­sumoto, an ex­pert on mi­cro-ex­pres­sions, ges­ture, and non­verbal be­ha­vi­or. In col­lect­iv­ist na­tions, like Rus­sia and China, people tend to neut­ral­ize happy ex­pres­sions, blend­ing in with the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. In con­trast, mem­bers of in­di­vidu­al­ist so­ci­et­ies, like the United States, crack smiles freely and of­ten, re­flect­ing the open­ness of their polit­ic­al cli­mate. The 2008 World Val­ues Sur­vey found that free­dom of choice strongly af­fects people’s hap­pi­ness.

Every­day life for Rus­si­an people has his­tor­ic­ally been gruel­ing, a fight for ex­ist­ence. Their hard­ships were re­flec­ted in their ex­press­ive­ness, and deep con­cern, along with a tangle of worry lines, be­came en­trenched on their faces. Rus­sia ranked 167th out of 178 coun­tries on a “World Map of Hap­pi­ness,” a 2007 sur­vey of 80,000 people world­wide that meas­ured a na­tion’s level of hap­pi­ness by factors most closely as­so­ci­ated with the emo­tions, such as health, wealth, and edu­ca­tion.

All this re­search makes it sound like Rus­si­ans are per­petu­ally un­happy people, doomed for de­press­ing lives. They’re not. Take it from this nat­ive Rus­si­an re­port­er.

Rus­si­ans smile for genu­ine hap­pi­ness — fair health, a pleas­ant mood, prosper­ity. All good reas­ons. 

When two Amer­ic­ans make eye con­tact in a crowded res­taur­ant, they smile out of habit. Rus­si­ans look away in­stead, since smil­ing at strangers is a cul­tur­al ta­boo. The Rus­si­an cash­ier ringing you up at the gro­cery store won’t of­fer a smile be­cause he doesn’t know you, and he won’t mim­ic your pleas­ant ex­pres­sion.

That cash­ier is also work­ing, and Rus­si­ans stay es­pe­cially tight-lipped while on the job. Work, simply put, should not be fun or taken lightly. Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin may look markedly sul­len while stand­ing next to his Amer­ic­an coun­ter­part, but it’s usu­ally not be­cause he is angry or up­set — he’s just do­ing his job.

When Rus­si­ans do crack a smile in pub­lic, it’s usu­ally dir­ec­ted at someone they know. Still, they tend to smile only with their lips, re­veal­ing only a hint of the up­per row of their teeth if the grin widens. Any more, and that smile comes off as un­pleas­ant or even vul­gar.

The biggest and most nat­ur­al smiles come out at home, where Rus­si­ans laugh and joke like any Amer­ic­an would, with close friends and fam­ily mem­bers. But when someone brings out a cam­era, the corners of their mouths turn down again. The per­man­ence of pho­to­graphs makes the im­ages some­how less per­son­al and more pub­lic; they re­flect how Rus­si­ans ap­pear to every­body else, in­clud­ing strangers on the street. En­tire fam­ily photo al­bums cap­ture not one smile. My Rus­si­an par­ents ap­pear stone-faced in black-and-pho­tos from their young adult­hood, dur­ing beach trips and bar­be­cues, at wed­dings and parties. They are not the same people who today, after 16 years in the United States, smile widely, flash­ing their white teeth, in front of the cam­era.

Rus­si­an cul­ture is full of quirks many Amer­ic­ans would find strange, from mak­ing long and com­plic­ated toasts to nev­er, ever throw­ing away a plastic bag. In 2011, sing­er Alina Si­mone offered a ter­rif­ic ex­plan­a­tion for why Rus­si­ans hate ice cubes. This week, BuzzFeed‘s El­lie Hall doc­u­mented their love of dill.

So, smil­ing in So­chi is a sure­fire way to re­veal you’re an out­sider — and prob­ably an­noy a nat­ive Rus­si­an — but, in mod­ern times, it’s re­l­at­ively harm­less. Whatever you do, don’t play the “got your nose” game with a Rus­si­an. That hand ges­ture, a fist with a thumb between the middle and in­dex fin­gers, is a lot less play­ful and a lot more of­fens­ive over there.

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