In some places, smiling at a stranger is an indication that you’re either daft, a little bit crazy, up to no good, or just American. This is most famously true of tourists who out themselves by smiling in Russia, a move that can look sorely out of place in an anonymous sea of stoney countenances.
It’s not that Russians don’t have joy in their hearts. It’s just that smiling in Russia is something you only do when you really mean it — and when you’re around people you know. You also need to be in a socially appropriate situation to smile.
Daily life in Russia often didn’t lend itself to “appropriate for smiling.” Life was hard, and smiling was an indication that you probably weren’t as worried about your survival as the next guy. Walking around with a docile smile on your face is more likely to cast you as a “servant” than a friendly stranger — or at the very least, not very sincere. And it’s certainly not expected to smile when you’re doing your job or actually serving anyone. As the famous Russian proverb goes, “laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity.”
So while it’s almost an imperative to smile in America — even when you don’t have a good reason to — this is clearly not the norm in all other cultures.
And at the end of the day, it really has nothing to do with actual happiness or interpersonal warmth. Studies have been done, and the smiliness of a given culture likely boils down to just one or two factors.
Smiling As A Measure Of Uncertainty Avoidance
How is it that smiling faces are rated more favorably in some countries, but assumed to be less intelligent, trustworthy and competent in others?
According to one theory, the cheeriness of a given culture has everything to do with whether there’s anything to be cheery about. Kuba Krys, a psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences, published a study that examined the cultural attitudes of more than 4,500 people in 44 different countries. Krys surmises that smiling is viewed more favorably in WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) — the acronym implying that these traits are generally not the norm in most countries — and less favorably where there’s high levels of corruption.
Krys dubs this the measure of “uncertainty avoidance.” In places where social institutions are inherently unstable, the measure of uncertainty avoidance is low, and the people there feel a lesser sense of control over their lives. In a place like this, smiling for no reason seems a little out of place — even foolish or suspect. There’s less trust, and therefore less reason to assume that someone is smiling at you with good intentions.
The study participants judged the honesty and intelligence of a number of faces, both smiling and non-smiling. Krys found that in stable, affluent countries, smiling faces were rated much more favorably. The reverse held true for societies with low uncertainty avoidance.
Smiling As A Measure Of Cultural Diversity
A group of psychologists discovered another interesting correlation among “smiling cultures.” In countries with high levels of immigration, people lean a lot more on facial expressions, presumably to make up for the fact that they often have to contend with multiple language barriers at the same time.
Based on survey responses from 5,000 people in 32 countries, the researchers found that countries with high levels of immigration over the past 500 years (like the United States, Canada and Australia) were more likely to view smiling faces favorably.
Meanwhile, the more homogenous populations in places like Hong Kong, Indonesia, Russia and Switzerland were among the least expressive. Interestingly enough, in these places, smiles were often seen as a means of negotiating one’s status in a social hierarchy (also known as a power move).
So…Should You Smile In Other Countries?
As with so many questions of cross-cultural etiquette, it really depends on where you are.
Different cultures have different “soft rules” around smiling (and even the way they smile). Americans have a particularly wide, toothy smile, which can look kind of vulgar in some places where smiling with one’s lips is more commonplace. Researchers actually compared photos of American and Chinese leaders and found a consistent trend of Americans looking much more “excited” than their Chinese counterparts.
Here’s a funny anecdote: in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, Chinese authorities had Olympic workers prepare for the games by clenching chopsticks between their teeth to strengthen their smiling muscles. Many transnational American corporations have had similar experiences training staff in more dour-faced countries. The expansion of McDonald’s into Russia is one particular example that comes to mind. Hilariously enough, Russia’s retail workers now smile more than America’s.
Ultimately, you should do your research before visiting another country. When in doubt, it’s probably prudent to avoid smiling at random strangers on the street (or making prolonged eye contact with anyone). This can strike others as creepy at best, and potentially provocative at worst.
If you’re struggling to override a lifetime of conditioning and you just can’t help but crack a wide smile on your travels, however, it probably won’t be the end of the world. The locals in most popular travel destinations are quite used to Americans and their goofy grins. Smiling in Russia is certainly one way to advertise where you’re from, but you’ll probably be just fine either way. After all — service apparently comes with a smile there as well.