Why Russians Don’t Smile

I have now found it interesting on both of my trips to Russia to see that people rarely smile. On one occasion on this recent trip, I came across a mother and a toddler and even though I made a point of playing up to the little boy, the mother just looked at me blankly. In Western countries, mothers would have been delighted that someone tok an entrust in their child. So, to try and find an explanation, I consulted Professor Google and found this list of cultural differences and reasons why Russians don’t smile. 

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According to Voronezh State University Professor of Philology, Iosif Sternin, a smile in Russia “fulfills an entirely different, if not even an opposite, function than does a smile in European countries.” He explains a number of reasons as to how for Russians this part of non-verbal communication differs from our western approach. The main ones are:

1. The (average) Russian smile is made only with the lips, and only rarely is the upper row of teeth readily visible. Showing one’s upper or lower row of teeth while smiling as we do, is, considered unpleasant and vulgar – It makes one appear like a horse!

2. In Russia, a smile is not a sign of respect. In our culture, a smile is a necessary part of a greeting or of conducting a respectful conversation. To a Russian, it apears false and untrustworthy.

3. In Russian communication, it is not conventional to smile at strangers. Smiles are directed mostly at friends or acquaintances. This is the main reason that people don’t smile at strangers – because don’t know them..

4. It is not conventional to return a smile with a smile. Apparently, if a stranger smiles at a Russian, it will most likely encourage the Russian person to search for the reason why this person smiled, not to answer the smile with a smile.

5. For Russians, a smile is a signal of personal regard or sympathy toward another person. A Russian smile demonstrates to the person to whom it is addressed that the smiling person is sympathetically inclined toward them. A smile is therefore a demonstration of personal regard. That is why Russians only smile at those whom they know, because one does not have a personal relationship with a stranger.

6. Russians do not consider it acceptable to smile while carrying out their duties especially while performing some sort of serious, responsible task such as an official or immigration officer..  In Russia, smiles are more associated with jokes or people who are silly or stupid. 

7. The Russian smile is a sincere expression of one’s good mood and a signal of sincerity. 

8. A Russian smile must have a significant cause known to those around them, only then does a person receive the “right” to smile in the eyes of those persons. 

So there you have it! Russian people are not depressed, sullen or perhaps shy, as we might think. The smile just plays a very different role in their culture and has much more of personal relationship significance than it does for us.

4 comments

  1. Pamela Saunders · ·

    I am pleased I have grown up in a society that holds a different view – one which basically trusts at the onset and so our smile is warm and friendly even to a stranger. But then we each are mostly bound buy our own customs.

  2. Trina Bruce · ·

    Ditto Pam. Isn’t Professor Google clever? I see he (or is it she) has been promoted from Dr to Professor. 🙂

  3. Daina · ·

    I think you could also add that people who have had/ have a seriously hard life aren’t in the habit of smiling . I rarely saw a person smile at anyone in shops or transport in Latvia . Many , many people in Latvia , Lithuania & St Petersburg looked unhappy . Just another reason to add to the cultural reasons/ etiquette , perhaps .

  4. Tatiana · ·

    Thank you for observations!
    It is sad that in the age, when we have so many information about any place on the planet, some people still see their cultural norms of showing emotions as the only correct and “good” ones. Russian non-smile to unknown people has nothing to do with hardships of life (every country has its black pages, some are no less dramatic than Russian – slavery, genocides of weaker rivals, religious wars, etc…) or negative intentions toward these unknown people. We just see smile to those whom you do not care about as fake (it is visually polite and formally friendly, but it is still fake for us). There is no any reason to prefer one approach over another one. It is nice to be around smiling people, but you do not know what that smiling person will do behind your back (at least, for Russian person it is hard to feel intentions/real attitude of smiling American/Australian/etc…). Just like it is good to see person’s intentions and mood clearly, but the truth might be not as sweet as we would wish to hear. The only important thing is to learn in advance which public agreement on neutral, friendly and unfriendly behavior works in certain country/society (this will help to interpret people’s behavior correctly instead of imagining all the people around are happy/oppressed/etc…).