To smile, or not to smile? That is the question


Russia is all about contradictions. For a newcomer, there are many things that might be downright confusing. For example, foreigners are oftentimes surprised how Russians could be so different. Russians can be very warm, accepting and openhearted when with friends, but might come across as miserable, rude and at times even aggressive when in public. How could this possibly be?

Here is the answer.

In Russia, it is generally not very common to smile in public places. If you smile at a stranger on a street, or worse on the tube or in a lift, this might be treated as invasion of other person’s private space. So instead of coming across as friendly, one might risk coming across as intruding, aggressive, or even crazy. A popular saying goes: “Laughter without a reason is a sign of craziness” (“Smekh bez prichiny – priznak durachiny”). In a way, not smiling in Russia is the equivalent to smiling in other countries, where a smile is a sign of politeness.

In official places and formal meetings, people might also strive to look very serious and non-smiling. This would be part of their formal image, and would show them as being strong, composed and focused. Too many smiles in this context, however, would risk making one look weak, superficial, untrustworthy or flaky.

Once people get to know you though, everything might change in an instant, and you will be surrounded with lots of warmth and friendly heartfelt smiles. That’s because, within a Russian mind, there’s a gap between “friends” and “strangers”.

Once you’ve crossed that gap, you will see that Russians make very loyal friends, and Russian friendship is the territory of wholehearted openness. Moreover, when Russians accept you as a friend, they accept you fully and unconditionally.

This translates across business relationships as well. If friendship has been built, this would be a priority over everything else, and things like one’s mistakes and professional imperfections might be ignored in exchange for loyalty, trust and support.

Have you come across something about Russia that doesn’t quite make sense to you? Send me a message on here, or email me at aksenovabusiness (at) gmail.com



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