By pure happenstance, this year I’ve traveled with two people new to Russia: Janet in May and my brother in September. Neither had any prior interest in, or desire to visit, this vast country; they came just because I was going. Janet is an inveterate world traveler and came on a whim. My brother, not much of a traveler, came because he was jealous of my parents’ trip last year and thought he needed to see this place before he died. I figured that they would both be as delighted as my parents were. But it turns out that Russia is not for everyone, apparently. Somewhere deep in my brain I knew this, but as a Russian friend recently told me, “You have lost all perspective.”
The main barrier to Russia-love seems to be the smile. Russians don’t smile out of politeness or just because. You have to have a reason to smile. If you smile for no obvious reason, you make those around you uncomfortable, like you are trying to put one over on them. In Russia, a random smile causes suspicion. So Americans, who smile at everyone everywhere, don’t feel welcome in Russia. This is an old topic, and one that has been beaten to death on travel blogs. Some Americans even go so far to blame Soviet propaganda for killing the Russian smile, like in this piece in the Moscow Times. But it’s just a difference in cultural communication. Professor Iosif Sternin, from Voronezh State University has catalogued the contexts in which Russians smile and it’s clear that Russians simply use smiles differently than Americans do.
So the lack of a Russian smile is a well-documented phenomenon. But I underestimated its impact on Janet and my brother. The situation really made them feel isolated. It got me to wondering: why do we, as Americans, feel so strongly about the need to smile? Why do we feel entitled to smiles from our fellow humans? When that smile is withheld, why do we take it so personally? A brief look around the web yielded some clues. We, Americans, view smiles as a sign of respect, a sign of deference. We often smile at people out of a desire to connect. When people don’t smile back we take it as personal rejection and the un-reciprocated smile can make us feel “like garbage.” We believe that someone who doesn’t smile back is a different type of person than we are, someone who is not “one of us.” In fact, the American smile is so deeply ingrained in our culture that some people find themselves under intense pressure to smile, even when they don’t want to.
So, for a visitor, it’s possible that smiling your head off and never getting a smile in return can feel like one nonstop insult. And it’s such a shame, because Russians are very friendly people. I decided to take note one day of all the interactions I had with strangers.
- A man on the metro joked to me about my large bag, saying,“You know, we’ve got plastic cards for carrying money nowadays!”;
- A woman nodded and said hello to me at the entrance to my apartment building;
- Numerous people asked me for directions (in vain, sadly);
- A woman in the grocery store pointed out to me that the store was run by idiots because they had carelessly blocked the dry-goods aisle;
- An older lady (who had maybe been drinking?) in the elevator commented on what a beautiful evening it was and how sublime the breeze was (she used that word, sublime);
Of course, you have to speak Russian to experience these interactions, so Janet and my brother were out of luck. I tried to remember back to what Russia was like for me when I didn’t speak Russian. Did I feel unwelcome?
No, I most certainly did not, but that is probably due to historical accident more than anything else. My first trip to Russia was in 1990 when it was still rare to see a foreigner out and about. We were so obviously foreigners—our clothes, our hairstyles, our shoes…we may as well have come from another planet. People would come up to us all the time just to say hello in English and maybe convince us to buy some postcards. Packs of smiling children would follow us around asking for chewing gum. People stared at us open-mouthed as if we were rock stars. By the time of my second trip in 1992, I already spoke a little Russian. People would strike up conversations with me everywhere, thirsty for information on what the world was like outside their country. Inevitably these conversations ended with the person giving me something as a token of affection. Inconveniently, one time this token was a fish. But the only rudeness I experienced was rudeness inflicted on everyone, not just me. For example, the shop ladies who smacked the “closed for technical reasons” sign on the door just as a small crowd tried to enter. Or the slightly hostile answer of “nyet” when you tried to order something that a café happened to be out of. These experiences made me feel more connected to Russians, not less, because I figured we were all suffering from these mild humiliations.
But that’s the difference, I think. Russia had already gifted me with such an initial hug of goodwill that it was easy for me to overlook these incidents and feel welcomed. By the time Russia’s infatuation with “the foreigner” had ended, my Russian was already good enough to understand what was going on. Neither Janet nor my brother experienced this; all they saw was the face of an impenetrable wall.