Media coverage of soccer’s World Cup has been liberally peppered with stories about host country Russia’s efforts to get its citizens to smile for the thousands of foreign visitors and millions of viewers worldwide.
Are Russians that cold and unfriendly? Nope. They are just keeping it real.
Smiles, it turns out, play different social purposes in Russia and the United States. American kids learn very early that a smile can be a powerful social cue; one that makes people feel good and generates positive feedback for the child. According to social researchers, kids who smile a lot may possess a higher degree of emotional self-control. As a result, they are perceived as “good kids” and garner the resulting benefits from grown-ups. No surprise, then, these kids become smiling adults.
Russian parents, on the other hand, see no connection between a goofy grin and good behavior, according to the researchers. Thus, Russian children generally smile only when something makes them truly happy. Again, no surprise, rarely smiling Russian kids grow up to be rarely-smiling Russian adults.
But that’s OK because Russian adults interact with each other differently from American adults in one important regard; a sociological measure called “social distance.” We Americans move through our days with an expectation of some degree of privacy, even when we are in public. Thus, we are often caught off-guard when an unknown person attempts to interact with us. Russians, on the other hand, fully expect to be approached by strangers in public and typically engage with ease and a high degree of mutual understanding.
In the US, a smile can help overcome our higher level of social distance by creating a sense of warmth and openness. That’s why everyone who deals with the American public from retail clerks to political candidates to office receptionists is constantly grinning.
Because Russians have no need to butter-up people before engaging with them, smiling at strangers or newly-made acquaintances is sometimes seen as a sign of mental illness or low intelligence.
So, take pity on all those Russians currently working at the World Cup venues. When the TV catches a beer vendor or cop grinning ear-to-ear, remember that smile may be the hardest part of her job.