Drop what you’re doing and squat low to the ground. Don’t overthink it — just drop your bum so it’s touching your ankles. This isn’t one of those chair squats you do at the gym or anything. Now, observe your heels. Are your feet flat on the ground, or are you balancing your entire weight on the balls of your feet? If you’ve managed to assume this stance without lifting your heels, congrats! You’ve mastered the Slav squat.
For reasons we’ll get into below, a lot of Westerners seem to be physically incapable of squatting like this without toppling over, and it’s actually to their detriment. But more than just a physiological test of hip flexion, the squat is also a cultural expression of how our muscle memory has adapted to the environment we’re used to.
The Slav Squat
In many non-Western cultures around the world, the deep squat is a default resting pose one can assume while eating, smoking a cigarette, taking a break or waiting on the street. Essentially, it’s a physically sensible position to assume whenever you need a break from standing and there’s no chair in sight. It’s more stable and comfortable than balancing on your toes, and it’s good for your mobility.
The Slav squat, as a concept, is only a few internet years old, however. It apparently originated on 4chan in 2012, and by 2014, “squatting Slav” was a notable search term on Google. A Romanian teenager created the popular Facebook page Squatting Slavs in Tracksuits, and the rest was history.
The “Why do Slavs squat” meme categorically features working-class men who appear to be loitering with beer bottles and cigarettes in tow, who are sometimes called gopniki (singular gopnik). The gopnik subculture took root among the lower-class youth of Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s, often in areas controlled by the local mafia.
Though gopnik has been partially reclaimed as a badge of ironic pride by the people it might potentially describe, calling someone a gopnik in Russia is not unlike calling someone “trailer trash” in the States.
The meme of the squatting Slav was mostly spread by other Slavs doing their best impression of the gopniki. Moreover, the meme began within the English-speaking internet and has mostly stayed there (which doesn’t exclude bilingual people from majority Slavic countries, by the way). And lastly, consider that the archetype of the “Slav” often ropes in people that are not necessarily ethnically Slavic.
The deep squat is also something you’ll find in many other parts of the world besides Eastern Europe, such as Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This is especially common in countries that use squat toilets, as well as places where you might not necessarily always have a public bench handy to rest without getting dirty.
Though the deep squat comes naturally to people who grow up in these regions and is not necessarily seen as a class issue in all of these countries, there’s definitely something to be said for why Westerners abandoned the squat in the first place (hint: it was partially because they decided squatting seemed “uncivilized”). It’s not uncommon to see businessmen in China squatting and negotiating a deal, and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was famously pictured in a deep squat on the White House lawn. The concept of the Slav squat is not only more “meme” than “cultural fact,” but it’s also usually visually represented on the internet by working-class men.
No matter which region you attribute it to, the flat-heeled squat is a superior position for the human anatomy. According to physical therapist Bryan Ausinheiler, the deep squat is more stable due to the low center of gravity — not to mention comfortable. It also requires triple flexion at the hips, knees and ankles, and it’s particularly this calf or ankle flexibility that can make or break one’s ability to deep squat.
As a matter of fact, young children naturally have this flexibility — but it’s one of those “use it or lose it” things as we get older.
Additionally, the human body is better-designed for a squat pan toilet than a seated toilet. Deep-squatting straightens out the anorectal angle, which requires less, uh, pooping strain. One would imagine this is how our hunter-gatherer ancestors did it, and Western inventions like the Squatty Potty are now trying to make up for centuries of poorly postured pooping.