Улыбка (часть вторая)

by Don  

Previously we discussed the word улыбка and how Americans and Russians perceive smiles differently. This last month I have seen once again how this affects us. On this occasion it was a comment made by a Russian woman of my acquaintance working at a major university in the US. She said:

Я хожу по коридорам и просто ненавижу этих людей. Они автоматически улыбаются, как роботы, но в них нет ни человеческой души ни искренности. I walk through these halls and simply hate these people. They smile automatically like robots, but they do not have human hearts nor sincerity.

She was suffering from profound culture shock, and part of that shock was due to her inability to process the American smile. Despite the fact that intellectually she knew an American smile meant something different than a Russian smile, her emotions still tried to perceive those smiles as if they were Russian smiles. Having known her for a while, I suspect that she will eventually return to Russia, embittered and depressed, convinced that Americans are terrible human beings. Alas, she will also return ignorant, completely misunderstanding what she was seeing.

I always teach my American students how to interpret the lack of smiling in Russia. Today I'd like to suggest to Russians what they need to understand about American smiles. Probably the most important thing for a Russian to realize is this: whereas Russian smiles are mostly meant to convey joy, American smiles have several other uses.

1. If you are in a store, when you walk up to the cashier, the cashier will probably smile at you. In this context, the smile means “I am ready to deal with your purchase.” This is not an insincere smile. The cashier is really ready to deal with your purchase. If you think, “The cashier is smiling because he/she wants to be my friend” or “The cashier thinks I'm sexy,” then you will most likely be mistaken. The cashier smiles that way at two hundred people a day and for the most part does not want to establish a new and lasting friendship with those people. For the most part the cashier does not think those customers are sexy. The cashier is ready to deal with each of their purchases. That's the purpose of the smile, and in that context it is sincere. The smile means: “I am ready to deal with your purchase.”

2. If you have an American acquaintance who is dealing with grief or illness or pain, and if you go to visit that acquaintance, he/she will probably smile at you when first seeing you. This smile can mean either a) that your acquaintance is happy to see you, or b) that your acquaintance is ready to pay polite attention to you despite the miserable circumstances. In the first instance, the acquaintance is sincerely happy to see you. In the second, the acquaintance is sincerely ready to be polite. The trouble for a Russian here is that Russians may assume that the politeness is an insincere attempt to be friendly or an insincere attempt to pretend that everything is okay. That would be a mistake. Most Americans sincerely want to be considerate and reasonable even to people they do not know, even in the midst of grief or pain. It is a sincere desire. But to assume that (b) means (a) would be a profound error.

3. If you work with Americans, then most every time you see your American colleagues, they will smile at you. In this context the smile means that the American is ready to go through the initial greeting ritual and then get down to work. Most of the time the smile does not mean that the American wants to deepen his relationship with you. About the greeting ritual… when Americans meet each other, they expect to go through the greeing ritual, which may take four to six sentences. They say “Hello, how are you?” The expected response is something like “Doing fine, thanks. You?” Do not give a negative response in this context unless a) there is something wrong that may inhibit the business you are there to discuss, or b) you are in such emotional distress that you really need the listeners to set aside the business for the moment to deal with your crisis. Generally, do not choose (b). Americans consider it childish, immature, unprofessional or simply tacky to bring personal emotions or relationships into the workplace.

Once again, a Russian may perceive an American smile in that context to be insincere. That's a mistake. The American sincerely wants to get down to business and sincerely wants to verify that there is no hindrance to that. If a Russian thinks “This smile means that my colleagues want to hear me detail my personal feelings right now,” then the Russian misunderstands the intent and the sincerity of the smile.

4. When walking down the street in the US, a Russian may meet the eyes of a stranger, and then the stranger smiles. This does not mean that the American wants to be the Russian's friend. If someone meets my eyes while walking down the street in the US and does not smile, I become immediately uncomfortable and wonder if the person has something against me. If the person smiles, then I assume the person is not hostile. That's right: the generic meaning of the American smile is “I am not currently disposed to be hostile toward you.” When the stranger smiles that smile, he is sincerely expressing the idea that he is not hostile toward you. The smile is sincere. The message it sends is sincere. But it is not the same message intended by a Russian smile.

Please bear in mind that whenever you meet someone from another culture, they have a completely different set of emotional cues. The things that they use to signal happiness, sadness, embarrassment, irritation or anger—that is, their facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language—are different than what you are used to. And all those things are processed by us mostly unconsciously. Thus it is very easy for us to completely misunderstand the intent of a foreigner, even after years of knowing them or their language or their culture. So when dealing with foreigners, always use your mind to step back from your initial reactions and consider whether your emotions might be misperceiving the foreigner's sincere intent.


Comment from: Ivan [Visitor]

Улыбка радости или поднимающиеся от удивления брови - безусловные рефлексы, а следовательно, действия совершенно искренние. Ненастоящая натянутая улыбка, также как и искусственно поднятые брови, - ложь.

03/05/11 @ 08:17
Comment from: it-ogo [Visitor]

You did not convince me.

Smile is a physiological reflex. Babies smile when they feel pleasure or joy. If you smile consciously, in order to express something, this is a forced smile, not sincere, even if you are well trained in forced smiling and made a habit of it.

In other words if a smile is an unconditioned reflex, it is sincere. Conditioned reflex is not.

Don responds: Only unconditioned reflexes are sincere? That seems unlikely. For instance, my brother-in-law is from Lebanon. When he hears a statement that he disagrees with, he automatically clucks his tongue and raises his eyebrows. There is nothing inherently negative about those motions; they are a conditioned response he learned as a child in the midst of Arab culture, but when he has a sincere ‘no’ response, that is what he does. In Japanese and Korean culture, smiles are a signal of feeling shame. It is a conditioned response they learn in childhood, and when someone sincerely feels shame, they make a smile gesture with their mouth.

Likewise intonation, hand gestures, the direction of the gaze, body posture and body distance are all things that are significantly shaped by culture in childhood. None of them are stamped with an unchangeable meaning in our body response system, and neither is a smile.

06/08/10 @ 13:36
Comment from: Elaine [Visitor]

This is very illuminating.

In my work I deal with several different cultrues and the differences are very interesting.

For instance, for some Pacific island groups, to look directly at someone you are meeting is a sign of disrespect. Some see this as the opposite, a sign of shiftyness.

I have just found your blog and will be back.
Thank you

06/05/10 @ 14:14
Comment from: Theophanes [Visitor]

Countless awkward situations in China could be avoided if foreigners figured out that Chinese people frequently laugh as a way of showing embarassment or dealing with awkwardness. Nothing makes an untrained round eye flip-out like seeing the person they’ve come to with a complaint break out in giggles. They in turn escalate the confrontation. Then The giggle turns into a full guffaw. You see where this is going.

05/31/10 @ 23:52
Comment from: Sergey [Visitor]

Преотличнейший пост! Нам в университете про разницу в улыбках тоже много говорят, кстати… Дон, пишите побольше про “Cultural differences” - читать очень интересно! :-)

05/31/10 @ 10:15
Comment from: Bryan [Visitor]

This was a hilarious post, Don. For two reasons: for what the Russian woman said, and comparing this to what I’ve experienced. I live in a suburb of Boston, and have been living here all my life, and I’ve only seen people smile in only two of those situations - 2 and 3. And with the exception of waiters/waitresses, I’ve almost never had service workers smile at me or anyone else (unless they were regulars)

Another funny detail I’ve noticed is at least half the Russians I’ve met smiled more than the other people around them. Though, there was this definite sense of ‘horror’ in their eyes, as if their actions were killing them deep inside… slowly.

05/31/10 @ 08:26

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