Happy or Not, Russians Rarely Smile in Public


In an article written by Marina Krakovsky and published in Psychology Today entitled“Global Psyche: National Poker Face”, Russian citizen’s facial expressions were compared with Americans. The article states that Russians, who seem very serious, rarely smile in public.

The article suggests that this is not because they are pessimistic worry warts, but because their social culture is more reserved, at least in public situations.

PT blogger, UC Riverside psychologist and native of Moscow Sonja Lyubomirsky, says it is true that Russians are generally less happy than Americans, but it is not by much.

Lyubomirsky goes on to purport, “You go to a dinner at a Russian home and the Russians seem happier – they’re drinking, singing, telling stories.”  So it may seem as though there is a public- private divide on revealing emotions between Russians and Americans.

Dr. David Matsumoto, a psychologist at San Francisco State, researcher and director of Humintell and his colleagues created the Display Rule Assessment Inventory (DRAI), which studies the rules about emotional displays of various nationalities.

Using the DRAI, Dr. Matsumoto conducted a study relying on the seven universal emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness and sadness to delineate and compare the emotional responses of male and female participants from America, Japan, Russia and South Korea.  His study revealed that Russians assert the highest control over their expressions, whereas Americans assert the lowest control over their expressions.

According to Krakovsky’s article, control over emotions, especially facial expressions, has been found to be the general rule in collectivist societies:  where people are more group oriented.  In collectivist societies, people try to neutralize their emotional responses especially with strangers or in public.

Linguist Isoif Sternin of Russia’s State University affirms that a Russian smiles only for good reason.  He goes onto state that it is not customary to smile while helping customers or to lift another person’s spirit.  However, in America those personality traits are valued.

Individualist, mobile societies such as the United States, in contrast, do not have such strict separations.  This leads to more openness with everyone.  Without this knowledge, Russians and Americans are bound to misread each other.  What might pass off in America as friendliness can be misconstrued as phoniness in Russia.

Dr. Matsumoto’s study results can be found under the chapter heading “Culture and Nonverbal Behavior” published in The Handbook of Nonverbal Communications.

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