It is a common trope that Russians never smile. Which of course is interpreted to mean they are unfriendly, gloomy, sullen – positively Dostoyevskian. This, of course, is a complete misreading of body language and cultural norms.
According to Voronezh State University Professor of Philology, Iosif Sternin, a smile "fulfills an entirely different, if not even an opposite, function than does a smile in European countries." Sternin has set out fifteen reasons for this "most distinct and nationally specific aspect of Russian non-verbal communication and of Russian communication more generally."
1. The (average) Russian smile is performed only with the lips, and only rarely is the upper row of teeth readily visible. Demonstrating one's upper or lower row of teeth while smiling, as Americans do, is, in Russian culture, considered unpleasant and vulgar – such a smile is called a grin, or a "horsey" smile.
2. In Russia, a smile is not a sign of respect. In American, British or German communicative behavior, a smile is first and foremost a sign of respect, and thus it is a requisite part of a greeting or of conducting a respectful conversation. Russian authors have frequently characterized the American smile as strange and false to Russians. Maxim Gorky wrote that the main thing you see on Americans' faces is their teeth. The comic Mikhail Zadornov called the American smile "chronic," and Mikhail Zhvanetsky wrote that Americans smile as if they were plugged into the wall.
In the West, smiling during greeting signifies first and foremost respect for the greeting. The more a person smiles during the greeting, the more affable he is, the more respect he is demonstrating toward his interlocutor. A smile while chatting with someone signals respect to the other, that the participants are listening to one another.
In Russian communicative behavior, the smile "of respect" or "out of respect" is simply not acceptable, and even quite the opposite. A Russian will normally be suspicious or even hostile toward a respectful smile, if it is perceived as such. The Russian phrase "he smiled out of respect" contains a sense of disapproval toward the person smiling.
Russians call a constant respectful smile a "duty smile" [дежурной улыбкой] and it is considered a bad character trait, an expression of insincerity, concealment, an unwillingness to express one's true feelings. "Wipe that duty smile off your face!" someone said to a Voronezh teacher of English who was constantly, in the American manner, wearing a smile.
3. In Russian communication, it is not conventional to smile at strangers. In Russian communication, smiles are directed mainly at acquaintances. This is the main reason that salespersons don't smile at customers – they don't know them. Salespersons will smile at customers they know.
4. It is not conventional to answer a smile with a smile. At the peak of perestroika, an American wrote to Izvestia: “Why is it, when we look at a border guard who is checking our passport, and smile at them, that we never receive a smile in reply? When we meet a Russian’s eyes on the street and smile at them, we never receive a smile in reply?” This was a valid observation: If a stranger smiles at a Russian, it will most likely encourage the Russian to search for the reason why this person smiled, not to answer the smile with a smile.
Even a smile from an acquaintance does not always lead a Russian to answer automatically with a smile, as it is understood as an invitation to interact, to have a conversation.
5. In Russian communication it is not acceptable to smile at a person if you accidentally catch their gaze. Americans smile in such circumstances, but for Russians it is conventional to avert one’s gaze. Russians do not feel it is requisite to smile while looking at small children or house pets. This is conventional among Americans, but not Russians.
6. For Russians a smile is a signal of personal regard or sympathy toward another person. A Russian smile demonstrates to the person to whom it is addressed that the smiling person is sympathetically inclined toward them. A smile is a demonstration of personal regard. That is why Russians only smile at those whom they know, because one does not have a personal relationship with a stranger. And this is why smiling at a Russian stranger can lead to the reaction, “Do we know each other?”
7. Russians do not consider it acceptable to smile while carrying out their duties, while performing some sort of serious, responsible task. Customs officers do not smile, since they are engaged in serious business. The same goes for salespeople and waiters. This is a unique aspect of the Russian smile. At Chase Manhattan Bank in New York there hangs a sign: “If our employee does not smile at you, inform our doorman, and he will give you a dollar.” In Russian conditions, this would be seen as a joke.
It is not acceptable for children to smile in class. Russian adults teach their children: be serious in school during classes, when adults are speaking with you. A smile from Russians in the service sector must be developed as a professional trait, it will not appear of its own course.
8. The Russian smile is a sincere expression of one’s good mood or an inclination toward one’s interlocutor and an inclination to sincerity. In Russian communicational awareness there is an imperative that a smile should express a sincere reflection of one’s good mood and positive relations. In order to have a right to smile, one must truly have positive feelings toward the other person, or, at the given moment, to be in a truly exceptional mood.
9. A Russian smile must have a significant cause known to those around them, only then does a person receive the “right” to smile in the eyes of those persons. If one’s reason for smiling is not apparent to the Russian with whom they are speaking, it could make the Russian anxious, requiring an explanation.
Thus, one salesgirl who was in a psychiatric hospital said, “For some reason the director smiles at me, probably there is something lacking in me.” A teacher at an institution of higher learning once wrote a complaint about the institute’s rector to the party committee: “He treats me with contempt – he always smiles when we meet.”
The Russian language has a unique proverb that is absent from other languages, “A smile without a reason is a sign of idiocy.” [Смех без причины - признак дурачины.] People with a western mindset cannot understand this proverb.
10. The reason for a person’s smile should be transparent, understandable to those nearby. If the reason is not clear or is considered to be insufficiently significant, those in one’s company may cut the smile off with a “What reason is there to smile?”
A sufficient (and practically the only) reason for a smile in Russian communication is the smiling person’s current well-being.
11. In Russian communication culture it is not acceptable to smile simply to raise the mood of, or to please one’s interlocutor, to support them. It is also not acceptable among Russians to smile in order to achieve one of those things for oneself, to buck oneself up. If he is not in a good mood or prosperous, a Russian will likely not smile.
In fact, public opinion in Russia to a certain degree judges negatively those smiling to buck themselves up: “Her husband left her, but she goes around smiling...”
12. In Russian consciousness, a smile requires a certain amount of time to “materialize.” It is seen as an independent communicatory act that is, in the majority of cases, excessive. As the Russian proverb has it, “Time is money, have fun later.” [делу время, потехе час]
Or, as one teacher is fond of saying to his students: “You can smile later, get to work!”
13. A smile should be appropriate from the point of view of one’s company, should fit the communicative situation. For the majority of standard communicative situations in Russia, a smile is not sanctioned. It is not acceptable to smile in tense situations – “Smiling is inappropriate” [не до улыбок]. It is not acceptable to smile if there are people near who are in serious distress, if someone is sick or overcome with personal problems, etc.
14. A smile at official functions and among friends demonstrates positive mood and friendliness. Visiting Brits are often surprised that Russians constantly smile and laugh at official functions, and Russians particularly attempt to maintain a smile in such situations. Among friends, a smile acts as a sign of mutual goodwill and the pleasant passing of time. And when people gather, it should be pleasant for everyone, all should be happy.
15. Russians draw a fuzzy line between a smile and a laugh. In practice the two are identified with each other – each resembles the other. A teacher will say to smiling children, “What’s with the laugh? I didn’t say anything funny!” In general, in Russia it is not rare that a smiling person hears, “I don’t get it, what’s funny here?” or “What did I say that was funny?”
A final note:
Smeyatsya is a general Slavic root. It corresponds with the Indoeuropean: smietis (Latin), smayaty (Sanskrit), smile (English) – but these foreign roots mean “to smile,” while the Russian verb means “to laugh.” The verb for smiling, ulibatsya, comes from the Russian verb lybat, to smile, to grin lightly.
The everyday unsmiling Russian (unsmiling, not morose – the majority of Russians are happy, life-loving and intelligent) is also supported by Russian folklore, where we find a great number of proverbs and sayings “against” laughing and joking.
Iosif Sternin is a professor of philology at Voronezh State University Professor. His findings on this topic have been published widely in Russian media. The above is mainly extracted from an article that appeared on drugie.ru.
Photo credit: © Simona Jasineviciene | Dreamstime.com
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