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Why do Russians Smile so Little?

12.May 2011

The culture of smiling

A smile is an important and often indispensable element of communication in many cultures. In the public consciousness, people can be divided into two kind of stereotypes: smiling or unsmiling types. From a general point of view, Americans, Japanese, Germans and Europeans in general, are considered to be part of the smiling people, while Scandinavians are perceived as unsmiling people. And Russians, despite their traditional qualities, kindness and hospitality, can be seen as unsmiling too.

Чем это объясняется? (how can it be explained)? By centuries spent struggling for survival in extreme climatic conditions? By the particular psychological constitution of Russians? Yes, certainly. But not only. The Soviet legacy left its marks on Russians’ mentality.

Smiling attitude at work

Тогда все стремились построить общество равных (at that time everybody aimed to build an egalitarian society), where there were no customers and no vendors and where no one owed nothing to anyone. At that time when profits, even in the slightest degree didn’t depend on your smiling attitude towards customers. “Хочешь – бери. Не хочешь – купит кто-нибудь другой” (if you want it, take it. If you don’t want it, someone else will buy it) was the common attitude in those days.

A similar attitude is not uncommon in Russia nowadays, which is very frustrating for foreigners coming to Russia for the first time. But look around you carefully, this practice is gradually disappearing. Хороший сервис, включая улыбку, за хорошую плату (a good service, including a smile, for a good price) is becoming a principle more and more frequently used by Russian enterprises providing goods and services.

However, despite the fact that Russia has been trying for over a decade to behave with Western-style principles based on healthy competition, it is unlikely that the deeply rooted remnants of the past should disappear in the near future.

Smiling time in Russia

In general, the functions of smiling are seen differently here than in America, Europe or South-East Asia. У русских не принято (it is not appropriate for Russians), for example, улыбаться незнакомым людям на улице (to smile to strangers in the street). It would be considered as very indecent behaviour. It is believed that when engaged in serious business, one must be serious.

For Russians there is a time to smile and laugh, and a time to work. “Делу – время, потехе – час” (it takes time to do the work, and an hour to have fun), so goes a Russian proverb. Russians must have a reason to smile. Dale Carnegie’s quote: “Улыбайтесь собеседнику!” (smile to your interlocutor) is not not always understood by Russians whose reaction is: “Чему улыбаться-то? Жизнь трудная. Нечему улыбаться!” (Why should we smile? Life is hard. There’s nothing to smile at!) We have a saying “Смех без причины – признак дурачины” (To laugh without any reason is a sign of stupidity).

It seems very artificial, and therefore, unpleasant for many Russians to smile politely, the way people do in America or Europe. We like a sincere, good-nature smile, as a proof of our personal affection to other persons.

Remember, the particular position of Russia in its relation between West and East gives its specificity to our smile.

Евгения Плещунова

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{ 2 Responses }
  1. I like these little articles very much, well done . I do have one gripe with the content of this particular piece as it makes absolutely no mention of the affect on Russian society ofthe brutal regime of Stalin & co . How the people feared the secret police and it’s paid spies cannot be understated and is difficult for us to imagine now what life was like in the darkest days of soviet russia. I have no doubt that life under a suppressive police state has had a huge affect on how Russians view strangers on the street and even how the are suspicious of even neighbours living in the same apartment block. To my mind one only has to read Solzgenitszens archipelago to understand the fear that the soviet regime managed to instill into it’s people. I believe that Russia and it’s people , especially it’s older generations , are still suffering from the psychological damage caused by the soviet policy of rewarding the good communist and punish those who dared disagree with the Party.
    Hence I do feel that the now russian tradition of not smiling to strangers or not smiling unless for very good reason , has originated from the dark days of soviet Russia . I wonder if russian citizens pre 1917 were as stern and suspicious of strangers as their current countrymen?
    Ok, just wanted to share my musings :)
    Thanks again for a great job on this website!

    • Hi Sean,

      You’re right about the damage caused by years of Soviet repression. This period was very hard, and no doubt we’ll talk about it in future articles.
      Life have changed so much here in the past 20 years, that it’s still difficult for many Russians to find their marks in this new economic market system. The fact of having to make money by themselves is a cause of great stress for some people from older generation. But athough they can appear not so friendly at first, Russians longed for communication and these clichés are changing fast with the new generation.

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