Why Russians don’t smile at unknown people. Foreigners constantly tell that the Russians are surprisingly unsmiling people. Indeed, we smile much less than other nationalities, but we have our reasons. Smile in Russian communication is not a signal of courtesy. Western smiles during greetings mean pure politeness. The more a person smiles, the more he wants to show friendliness to their partner. Constant polite smile in Russian is called “duty smile”, or “forced smile”, and is considered a bad sign of human manifestation of insincerity, secrecy, unwillingness to discover true feelings. Russian smile is a sign of personal liking, sincere attitude and feelings, and not politeness.
Most Russian people don’t smile at people they don’t know. Smile in Russian communication is addressed to mainly familiar people. That’s why buyers are not smiling communicating with a saleswoman – they do not know her. If a saleswoman smiles, it’s because she is told to always smile, her smile is forced. And for Russian it’s uncharacteristically to smile back.
If Russian sees a smiling stranger, he will undoubtedly look for the cause of fun. Maybe something is wrong with his/her clothing or hairstyle, which caused this type of fun. Nobody likes to be laughed at.
To Russian a smile should be reasonable enough and obvious to others. The person should have the reason to smile – from the point of view of others. In Russian language there are proverbs and sayings discouraging smile, such as “Laugh for no reason – sign of fool”.
Unsmiling Russian man doesn’t mean he is gloom, in fact Russians are mostly funny, cheerful and witty. Unsmiling person is supported by Russian folklore, where we find a lot of sayings and proverbs “against” laughing and joking. Most popular comedians provoke burst of laughter of audience when they tell their funniest jokes with a serious expression of face.
Russians do not customary smile while on duty, in the performance of any serious business. For example, customs officers at airports never smile being busy with serious matter. Always smiling people can’t get trust and respect among colleagues, they would be thought of as insincere, dishonest, suspicious or even stupid.
Russian smile is intended to only be sincere, it is regarded as a genuine expression of good mood. So, if a foreigner smiles – it does not mean anything, he wears “smiling mask”, he was taught to smile to everyone, as if he cares about someone he doesn’t know, and if Russian smiles, it is because he really wants to and he cares. Sometimes you may see a person walking on the street smiling at himself lost in his own thoughts and memories, and as soon as you try to contact with this person (e.g. ask him how to get to some place), his smile immediately disappears as if he is awaken from dream. He will sure show you the direction with a serious expression of face.
According to “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness” by V.S. Ramanchandran, we’re capable of mounting two different kinds of smiles, one genuine and the other forced, which are in fact generated in two separate parts of the brain. They look different, these two smiles. To produce a genuine smile we must genuinely feel like smiling. To smile at a stranger in a meaningful way requires real feeling for them — that we care about someone we don’t know. To smile at a stranger means to pretend we care. It’s a part of everyday lie, the same as “duty question” How are you (as if anyone really wants to know how you really are), and the answer “I am OK” (even if it is not ok at all).