If you go to Russia, you quickly learn that Russians are stingy with their smiles. From the customs officers welcoming you into the country to the waiter at the fancy restaurant, you’ll be greeted with a straight face. As a foreigner, you might find this strange. Typically, we associate smiling with politeness. However, Russians do not see it that way. A Russian proverb roughly translates to “Only fools smile for no reason.”
In this post, we explore why Russians do not smile.
Because life was grueling in Russian for several centuries, a straight/stern face became a standard expression. Smiles were reserved for rare moments of good mood and prosperity. Because sincerity and openness are hallmarks of Russian culture, Russians see no need to fake a smile. They smile only when the occasion calls for it.
Here are some of the few instances when you can catch a Russian smiling:
In Russia, you smile only at people you know. Such a smile indicates that you’re happy to see them and is an invitation to communicate. Conversely, Russians never smile at strangers. If you smile at strangers in Russia, rather than return a smile, they will think you find them funny because they look or act weird.
Of course, Russians do joke around. Russians will smile if they hear a good joke or are watching a comedy series.
You’re expected to smile if you’ve just gotten a promotion or won the lottery. Do not be surprised if others ask why you are smiling. When that occurs, give a valid reason. Russians are very open people and are willing to share personal information, so feel free to explain the reasoning behind your smile.
Here are common scenarios in which the fact that Russians do not smile might seem strange to you as a Westerner.
In Russia, you are expected to not smile when engaging in serious business. This attitude is ingrained even in kids in Russia. If a teacher hears a giggle, they will ask, “Why are you laughing? What’s funny about that?” Given this attitude, do not expect smiles in a typical Russian workplace or business meeting.
It’s expected that you will not smile when you’re in trouble, whether it be a work or family crisis. If you smile when dealing with a personal tragedy, other people will think you are weird or careless.
While smiling might be a sign of empathy or comfort in some cultures, in Russia it’s considered highly offensive to smile at someone who is going through an ordeal.
As you can see, it’s part of Russian culture to not smile much. Russians believe that smiles must be genuine and reserved for appropriate situations. That’s why many Russians accuse Westerners of having “insincere smiles.”