Why Russians don't smile at strangers - ForumDaily
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Why Russians don't smile at strangers

In the United States, as in many other countries, smiling is a common, habitual, even reflexive gesture of goodwill. An emigrant from Russia, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, Masha Gartstein, explains: in Russia, a casual smile addressed to strangers in public is often seen as a sign of mental illness or low intelligence.

Фото: Depositphotos

The concept of a "smile gap" is not without merit, notes Masha's colleague Samuel Putnam, a professor of psychology at Bowdoin College, writes The Conversation.

“In our studies in the field of psychology, we noticed a striking difference in how often people smile in the United States compared to Russia. For Americans, it would be easy to assume that this characterizes Russians in a certain way — that they are unfriendly, heartless people. But this is not at all the case. It is worth understanding why some forms of self-expression, such as a smile, become a key part of social exchange in some cultures, and do not become such in others. ”

What does Russian smile mean

Camilla Baker found 41-year-old Sophia Campbell (unreal name) in a group of Russian expats on Facebook. Sofia lives in the USA for ten years. She agreed to meet and talk about American and Russian culture, and also, in particular, about a smile, writes Nautilus.

“When I approach Sophia Campbell, she attentively examines me and my gorgeous smile. A return smile will appear on her face shrouded in shock of blond hair only after we officially shake hands.

I feel some surprise: the Russians, as the stereotype says, do not smile at strangers.

We spend several minutes in the queue for drinks, sharing the same kind of courtesies, about the hostility to which she will talk over the next hour. At some point, she points to colorful Italian pastries in the window of the bar. “I don’t know what it is,” she says in her Russian style, not paying attention to what the barista can overhear.

After we get our coffee and find places, she says that she finds the Americans' constant friendliness tiring - all those smiles and “how are you” from neighbors, employees, cashiers and journalists. According to her, Russian culture has a different set of standards for polite behavior. ”

Фото: Depositphotos

Do you really want to know how are you?

Sofia is originally from Kazan, a city in 500 miles east of Moscow. As a student, she showed great promise and entered a pre-MBA program in Moscow for her career. There, she became one of two people in the group who were awarded free MBA education at California State University (CSU) in East Bay.

In the small town of Hayward, California, where the CSU is located in East Bay, she was lucky with varying success. Sofia handled it with dignity. But when she was preparing to release, the country was struck by the 2008 financial crisis of the year. All places in the financial sector, where she hoped to settle, were inaccessible. She began working as a cashier at the Wells Fargo branch office in San Francisco.

Despite the fact that she was an experienced native speaker of English, it was in the bank that Sofia faced a lack of ability to speak "American." This other English language, about which she knew little, consists not only of words, but also of mimicry and fairly refined conversational habits that are not easy to grasp.

The situation seemed complicated with the simple question “How are you?”. This kind of social scenario is not peculiar to people in Russia, and it seemed to her unnecessary. Everybody really wants to know how is she doing? Not.

Everyone who asked for it, did it, only expecting to hear in response “Great!” Or “Excellent!”, In order to facilitate the next part of the conversation. If she answered honestly (“I'm tired”), which was the most natural, then she was worried that she would show herself rude. And when she, anticipating awkwardness, asked: “How are you?” First, she felt more insincere.

Lubrication of social mechanisms

According to Samuel Putnam, there are two plausible explanations for the “smiling break.” The first is related to the way people in different cultures communicate with each other. Different cultures have different “mapping rules” (or norms that dictate how people should express themselves).

The mapping rules often depend on the so-called “social distance”, which is related to the expected privacy in a given culture. Studies have shown that in Russia the social distance is lower compared to the United States.

This means that people are usually ready for strangers to turn to them, and there is more mutual understanding. There is less pressure associated with displaying positive emotions — such as a smile — to indicate friendliness or openness, because it is usually assumed that you are already on the same wave, says Putnam.

When there is a big social distance, during a chance meeting there is a high probability of getting into trouble. Therefore, Americans usually count on even a drop of privacy. Even in public, when strangers come together less often. When this happens, it can be disturbing.

Therefore, when approaching a stranger, a smile can lubricate the mechanisms of social interaction and help another person feel comfortable.

Smile value

This phenomenon can be viewed through the prism of intercultural differences in personality or temperament. We know that different cultures experience, express and regulate their emotions in different ways.

For example, children in different cultures develop different temperaments. In a series of studies conducted with psychologist Elena Slobodskaya from the Research Institute of Physiology and Fundamental Medicine, we found that mothers in Russia compared to American mothers more often reported that their babies show negative emotions, such as anger or disappointment. Russian mothers also noted that their babies demonstrate a lower level of positive emotional expression, including smile and laughter.

Among these findings there is an interesting point. American babies, who most likely expressed positive emotions, at the same time showed themselves better in self-regulation. In other words, they controlled their emotions and behavior better. At the same time, the tendency of their Russian peers to express positive emotions was not associated with self-control.

What do these results say

In every culture, a smile works in its own way. In Russia, children can contract facial muscles only when they are truly happy. This is a true expression of emotion.

In the US, children are able to develop an understanding that a smile is an important social signal that does not necessarily reflect what they really feel, but instead shows appreciation or gratitude to another person. This makes it possible to explain why American children, who are more likely to smile, are also more prone to self-control.

Further, attitudes and beliefs of adults can play a role. American parents may think that children who behave positively also have other useful traits, such as the ability to focus and control their behavior.

In other words, in the USA, a happy child is perceived as a “good” child. On the other hand, Russian educators do not see any connection between the frequent manifestation of a smile on a child’s face and his manners and behavior. These children are less likely to smile in everyday social interactions.

Text translation prepared edition Inosmi.

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