Question sent by an Alice and answered by our expert Pia Kähärä.
I have always wondered why Russians never smile?
Do you have any idea why that is?
Thanks for the good question, Alice!
This is a question that most foreigners face when travelling to Russia or meeting Russians for the first time – me too. A few years ago, I spent some time finding resources with more information about the subject because so many people asked the same question. I actually found articles and studies about the ’Russian smiling’ subject. So, I answer your question based on my own cultural knowledge and experience, and also findings of the articles and studies.
First of all, there is a concept of high or low uncertainty avoidance in a culture. It refers to the anxiety people feel around situations that are uncertain or unknown. According to social scientists like Geert Hofstede and Kuba Krys, high uncertainty avoidance is a characteristic found in societies that have recent experiences of war or conflicts, are politically repressed, and where strong social norms are preferred. Also, corruption tends to be a little more prevalent and civil services tend to be a bit more unstable. Polish Kuba Krys et al argued in their article in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior (June 2016, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp-101-116) that smiling in these countries would be less welcome – a smiling face could be duplicitous. Russia scores as one of the highest in uncertainty avoidance.
So, here below you will find some reasons and explanations behind the Russians not smiling:
A smile is not a sign of politeness in Russia
A smile is not considered a sign of politeness in Russian communications. Constant smiling can be taken as a sign of ”duty or behaviour” which can refer to dishonesty, secrecy and hiding your real emotions. It is also good to understand that Russian culture is very hierarchical and there is a culture to punish subordinates for their mistakes. Constant smiling can make people think that you have done something wrong and are trying to avoid punishment.
Situation matters, too. In Russia, you often show respect by taking things seriously and by behaving formally. In business meetings, especially, when you meet and negotiate for the first time, you should refrain from smiling too much as it can be misinterpreted that you don’t respect your counterpart or the negotiations. The same concerns working in general: different government officials or other clerks, even waiters in restaurants, are fulfilling an important task and when doing that you are not expected to smile. Children are taught this at school: “What are you smiling at? Keep writing.” As Russia is a culture with a great dislike for uncertainty, formal behaviour rules are one way to avoid it.
Russians do not smile at strangers
Russia is a collective culture, consisting of ’in-groups’. Russians do smile at people they know. Shop assistants smile at the clients they already know, not necessarily at others.
If you smile at a stranger in Russia, he/she can smile back, but it can already mean an invitation to come and talk. Russians take smiling as a sign that the person cares about them. To smile at a stranger can raise the question:” Do we know each other?”
You see two behaviours in one person in Russia: formal – unsmiling is for ’them’ (strangers); friendly – smiling for ’us’ (friends, people he/she knows). Some Russians skip to friendlier behaviour after a shorter time. You can consider yourself accepted when people you have met begin smiling at you.
Real feeling – not fake
Smiling in Russia usually shows the real good mood and good relationship between people, as it is not used as a form of politeness. When a Russian smiles at you, he/she really cares about you or is genuinely in a good mood.
How to smile
Russians prefer not to show their teeth too much when smiling. Showing your upper and lower teeth when smiling, looks a bit vulgar, a horse grin to Russians.
Smiling without a reason
Others must understand the reason of smiling in Russia. If they don’t, it is considered strange. They start wondering what is behind the smile. Perhaps they interpret that the person who ”keeps smiling” is a bit simple or stupid. All Russians know the saying: “The laugh without reason – is the sign of stupidity” (“Smeh bez prichiny – priznak durachiny”)
Smile vs. laugh
There is a thin line between smiling and laughing in Russia. If you smile too much, someone can ask: ”What is so funny?”
However, smiling and laughing in Russia is also even expected in some special occasions, like parties. Everybody usually smiles and laughs there.
You must remember that after the collapse of the Soviet Union Russians have also travelled a lot in business and pleasure and had a lot cross-cultural encounters. So, things have changed in the smiling respect, too. There are a lot of Russians who have learnt to take smiling as a sign of politeness and use it as such, too. Many waiters in restaurants have had to learn it, for example.
⇒Actually, it would be nice to hear your thoughts after reading this. What does a smile mean to you? Why and when do you smile at people?
For foreigners unsure when to smile in Russia, I would advise:
- When greeting and meeting new Russian people in formal occasions, see what they are doing and follow their example. Anyways be careful of constant smiling (especially showing your teeth).
- Don’t smile at strangers in public, as they can take it as an invitation to contact.
- When you have got to know people, smile when you feel like it and especially when you feel good and want to show that you care about them.
- Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. 3rd Edition, McGraw-Hill USA, 2010
Krys, K., -Melanie Vauclair, C., Capaldi, C.A. et al. J Nonverbal Behav (2016) 40: 101. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-015-0226-4
Article by Iosif Sternin, PhD, The head of the Department of General Linguistics and Stylistics, Voronezh State University: http://www.the-village.ru/village/city/asking-question/165261-pochemu-russkie-ne-ulybayutsya-zlaya-msk
Pia works as a consultant helping Finnish companies in their ’go to market’ efforts in Russian-speaking countries like Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, as well as helping companies from those countries come to Finland.
In addition to her native Finnish, Pia speaks fluent Russian and English. Pia’s aim is to help managers perform better in business between countries and in multicultural teams – diminishing stereotypes between societies. Her broad practical business experience with European and Russian-speaking countries helps her to deliver tailored programs and trainings that are firmly anchored in solving real-life business situations.
Pia has written several articles on the CUBEIN platform register to discover them.