Why Russians Aren’t Smiling in Sochi

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According to Ed Leigh and The National JournalRussians aren’t returning smiles that are so freely given by many American and Europeans during this exciting and joyous time of the Winter Olympics.

Why are these smiles not reciprocated?

Well, its not as spiteful as you might think.  When Leigh asked a native Russian why no one was returning his smiley greetings he was told, In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people—and rich people don’t walk on the street.

What may be perceived as a friendly and sincere greeting from Americans and many Europeans, comes off as a forced and insincere gesture for Russians.  In their culture, one must have a good reason for smiling and that reason should be obvious to the smiler and the receiver of the smile.

So its more of the cultural norm than a personal attack against another culture or nationality.  For Russians, a smile in public is not the polite expression that Americans reflexively offer strangers on the street.  When people smile without hesitation—for no reason—Russians tend to 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.

There are many reasons why Russians do not smile as readily as other cultures.  As the article points out during the early Soviet era in the 1980s when anti-U.S. propaganda abounded, Soviet media regularly blasted reports called “Their Customs,” explaining that Americans, a power-hungry people, smiled to deceive others.

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 – yet the people were waiting in line to buy bread or milk.

The very form of government can dictate how its people control their expression of emotions, according to Dr. David Matsumoto, an expert on microexpressions, 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.

Everyday life for Russian people has historically been grueling, and their hardships were reflected in their expressiveness.  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.

What are your thoughts on the Russian poker face?

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