One of the first things people notice when visiting Russia is the lack of friendly smiles. Russians, at first glance, have often been noted for their air of gloominess and introspection, and their intense, ice-cold stares. I remember feeling constantly tensed my first weeks in Moscow, frightened by the harsh tones, and crusty glares I encountered in the metro.
I have since learned that the blank expressions are just a mask that people wear in public. In fact, not putting on a grim front tends to push people away and freak them out more often than not.
Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette, by Anna Pavlovskaya explains the behavior well,
In Russia, it is not usual to smile at passers-by. At best this will be thought of as some sort of stupidity, but smiling at a stranger in certain circumstances, in a dimly lit doorway for example, could even be dangerous. There is a saying in Russia that ‘laughter without reason is the sign of stupidity’. When the first McDonald’s opened in Russia, the employees were taught to smile at clients, which caused a lot of problems, or as one of the young employees put it, “People think that we’re complete idiots”. The serious, concentrated face that Russians wear on the street is not a sign of any particular glumness, but just a tradition that considers smiles to be something private and reserved for those close to you. -Anna Pavlovskaya
I’ve since gotten used to being stern in public, and find myself slightly unnerved by smiley strangers. Over-friendly customer service, while ultimately really nice, also takes me by surprise. I had to laugh, though, at this book review I read in the Moscow News this week. The article, which covered a novel about the late Yeltsin era in Siberia, mentions a funny manifestation of Russia’s “stare culture” in the company, Aeroflot,
Imagine a badly run state-monopoly airline whose surly flight attendants are notoriously indifferent to customer comfort and satisfaction. Now imagine that this airline suddenly decides to rebrand itself for the brave new post-socialist marketplace – not by changing its employees but by changing its slogan, which out of the blue becomes:“We don’t smile because we’re serious about making you happy.” Sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? Well, Aeroflot really tried this in the 1990s – and soon saw the wisdom of rebranding again… -Mark Teeter, Moscow News
Seriously, though, it took me just over two years to figure out why most Muscovites don’t smile. It’s one thing to have head knowledge about this aspect of culture, it’s another thing to instinctively understand that I’m not surrounded with angry, suicidal commuters – to realize that the cranky barking from the metro attendant is actually a really kind and helpful word of advice from someone who’s going out of their way to do something nice for me!