Russian Language Blog

The Elusive Russian Smile Posted by on Jul 26, 2007 in Uncategorized

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.

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  1. MikeO:

    I’ve often wondered about this. Thanks for your explanation, it makes sense!

  2. Bitcloud:

    The best thing I can do for this wonderful source is to say that I’m a biggest fan of this website

  3. Mark Wainwright:

    You seem to attribute the elusive Russian smile to a mere cultural difference and that somehow Russian smiles are more genuine. Have you considered though that maybe a smiling is a sign of a healthy well-being in a society? I realize America has problems. But Russia has had a much more traumatic past than we have. Also, it’s population lives in a more overcast, gloomy environment. The lack of smiling in Russia could stem from such reasons. There is a lot of psychological research behind the smile to suggest it has a universal positive effect that the brain responds to unconsciously. For example, a smiling mother will instill a better sense of self into a baby–there is a correlation there. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t trust too much smiling either if it’s not genuine. The point is that genuine smiling is a healthy thing. Most Russians seem to lack this– when they do smile, they don’t use their eyes to accentuate it, which is the mark of authentic smiling.

    P.S. American culture is thought of as not smiling enough by South American cultures. Go figure.

  4. Sasha:

    “Последний смех лучше первого”

    This proverb isn’t written correct. Correctly: Хорошо смеётся тот, кто смеётся последний.

  5. Minority:

    >>“The last laugh is better than the first (because laughing is now over)
    Sasha is right, the correct russian version of this proverb is “Хорошо смеется тот, кто смеется последним.”. In english it would be something like: “the last one who laugh do it better”.
    We mean by this proverb that if you’re laughing about your competitor’s failure – be sure that you won last stage of your competition (beware – he can gain a revenge).
    And I never heard about “ideal russian woman is unsmiling woman”.

    Don’t be so tedious about “unhappy, unhealthy russian nation” =) We really love smiling. But we do not smile to show “I feel normal, look, I’m ok as usual”. We smile when we excited or heard something really fun or met a good friend! Of course it seems that nobody’s smiling when you’re walking through the center of our cities: people’re going with their buisness and they don’t know anybody in the street to smile at. If we’re walking in company, we hardly can do not smile or laugh.

    And when you live for a long time in some neighbourhood, you know almost every person you’ve met, and they’re smiling at you and greet you. =)) I think it’s great, ’cause it shows their real attitude to yourself.

    PS. Did you ever tried to smile for a long time when it’s -30 C in the street? It causes bad feelings about teeth and lips.) We have such weather for months sometimes! =)

  6. Nastya:

    Hello! I’m from Russia, but I agree with you – the Russian people a little smile and often consider it a sign of stupidity. I do not quite understand their position. I talked to many, that smile – a sign of politeness, but they do not want to listen to me. Everyone thinks that I am hypocritical, because I smile a lot. It is very sad. I hope someday Russian learn to smile. 🙂

  7. Diana:

    I am russian and I like to smile 🙂 And I smile when I’m talking to people. But I think that americans smile too much and russians could smile more than now.

  8. Kandarpa Das:

    I really could agree that Russians do not smile. My 27 years associations with Russian people (from Soviet Union to Russian Federation)and ten years experience and encounter with Russians while I lived with them tell me to differ with you.

  9. Kandarpa Das:

    Sorry, I really could not agree ….

  10. Неважно:

    Oh-oh, how fun here)))))) And, perhaps, I also give my opinion (sorry, that through the google translator).
    In fact, we just too lazy to smile! When you walk down the street, it’s just nothing! This is the first reason.
    The second reason: a smile is a sign of affection. If you are a friendly smile to a stranger, he might think that you’re flirting with him))))) And these problems we do not need.

    Please do not svyazvat lack of smiles in a bad economic situation, with a bad history and other things. Believe me, we talked about this and not think of (except for those cases when there is a conversation about politics XD).

    Ах-ах, как тут весело)))))) И, пожалуй, я тоже выскажу своё мнение (извините, что через google переводчик).
    На самом деле нам просто лень улыбаться! Когда идешь по улице, это просто незачем! Это первая причина.
    Вторая причина: улыбка это признак симпатии. Если ты приветливо улыбаешься незнакомому человеку, он может подумать, что ты с ним флиртуешь))))) А таких проблем нам не нужно.

    Пожалуйста, не надо связвать отсутствие улыбки в плохим экономическим состоянием, с плохой историей и прочим. Поверьте, мы об этом и не думаем (исключая те случаи, когда идёт беседа о политике ХD).