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In Russia, The Suspicious Meaning Of A Simple Smile

Our correspondent dissects the famous lack of overt politeness in Russian society. But things may be getting a bit more pleasant, thank you very much.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Smiles are not universally appreciated

MOSCOW - Is it because it’s so difficult to pronounce the Russian word for “hello,” (zdravstvouite) that it does not come to mind easily? When said to a neighbor, the word usually receives no answer, not even a nod. Thus, the writer of this article, who has been living in the same Moscow building for more than five years, had to wait two whole years before she got a real hello, or a little shake of the head from her neighbors.

A smile is something even more unusual. In Russia, smiling is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, or even worse, as a sign of a possible request about to come. So something generally good to know: the already suspicious Muscovite will be all the more so is he sees you with a big smile on your face.

“I hate the way American people smile, they are like machines,” says 45 year-old Macha, a psychologist for an NGO. “Those teeth appearing when they smile, it’s both beastly and hypocritical.”

Katia, an interpreter and seasoned traveller, points out that “Russian people smile mostly at the airport and when they come back from holidays abroad”. A one-liner sums up this Russian attitude: “In the United States people’s faces show false civility; in Russia, faces show honest hatred”.

In Russia, it is better to remain stony-faced and to utter short sentences if you want to be taken seriously. One January night, I found a woman unable to enter the access code at the front door of my building in the Arbat district in Moscow. I opened the door and told her to come in. The woman rushes past me, rummaging through her bag. She wants to show me her ID. I say “Don’t worry, I trust you” -- and it was too much. In a second, the cold silhouette turns into some kind of public prosecutor and points an accusing finger at me: “Unbelievable! You really would let anyone in? It’s sheer madness!”

In his book “The Russian Language on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” etymologist Maxime Krongaouz sheds some light upon these different behaviors. “Two individuals who don’t know each other happen to meet in a building or to take the elevator together. (…) If they are German, French or American, they will say hello to each other, something that two Russian individuals who don’t know each other won’t ever do.”

To a Westerner, smiling or saying hello is a way of presenting oneself with the best of intentions. In Russia, it is a sign of a suspect attitude. The rule here is indifference. When meeting a total stranger, the best policy is to close yourself off to everything surrounding you and to keep an expressionless stare. According to Krongaouz, the message is that “you are nothing to me, therefore I am not a danger to you.”

These past few years however, there’s been a noticeable uptick in politeness. People do not throw the subway doors violently in your face anymore, drivers slow down or even stop at pedestrian crossings, and sales people in shops may even shout a loud “zdravstvouite.”

But while supermarkets, pharmacies and airlines are now training staff how to smile when they greet customers, don’t ever expect the same from custom officers, subway employees, bus drivers and many other public service employees. They remain as inalterably unpleasant – and unsmiling -- as ever.

Photo - alancleaver_2000



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This leading French daily newspaper Le Monde ("The World") was founded in December 1944 in the aftermath of World War II. Today, it is distributed in 120 countries. In late 2010, a trio formed by Pierre Berge, Xavier Niel and Matthieu Pigasse took a controlling 64.5% stake in the newspaper.

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