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Have you heard the complaint that Russians don’t smile? Have you traveled to Russia to find the sales people rude or disengaged? Have you ever looked at a Russian photo album and wondered if they’re not all depressed?
It’s true, Russians smile less than Americans, and they’re well aware of it.
I. A. Sternin wrote an essay exploring how Russians and Americans smile differently. He says that in Russia, a smile is not a sign of politeness, nor is it considered normal to smile at strangers. And what comes as a considerable damper for eager Americans, Russians don’t find it necessary to return smiles.
The American smile is well known in Russia. I’ve been asked several times why I smile in photographs so widely, and why I don’t tone down my smile. Instead of becoming sour, I’ve instead learned to smile only when I honestly feel happy. The biggest Russian complaint about American smiling, alongside the excess of American teeth, is that our smiles are fake, like candy. A Russian smile will always have a reason behind it that is clear to everyone present. That’s why an extra smile in Russia is a sign of insanity.
Sternin says that smiling takes up its own mental slot and needs its own dedicated moment of existence. Russians have many sayings about when to smile or laugh and when not to. The most common is, “Смех без причины – признак дурачины,” “Laughter without reason is a sign of imbecility,” but others are “Последний смех лучше первого,” “The last laugh is better than the first (because laughing is now over),” and “Идеалом русской женщины является неулыбчивая женщина,” “The ideal Russian woman is an unsmiling woman.”
Makes you look forward to learning Russian, doesn’t it? At least you know that when they do smile, they really mean it.
There is a complete list of such phrases from V. Dal’s Dictionary of Russian Sayings at the end of Sternin’s essay. Although many of these phrases are idiomatic, some useful word roots for this list are,
Смех, смешки, смешно = laughter, jokes, to be funny
Горе = grief, sadness
Шутка, шутить = joke, to joke, kid
Весел, веселья = happy, fun
Пиво, пить = beer, to drink
Дело, делать = something to be done, to do
Да = and (a folk usage)
Try entering these phrases into online dictionaries or search engines if you’d like translations.