National Poker Face: Happy or not, Russians rarely smile in public

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image by ITAR-TASS / Alexei Filippov

American visitors to Russia often can’t get over the natives’ sullen looks, worn by service workers and passersby alike. But what might appear to be a nationwide case of the blues has a more benign origin.

While it’s true that Russians are generally less happy than Americans, the difference isn’t huge, explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness. In fact, in private, it’s Americans who look more subdued, says Lyubomirsky, who grew up in Moscow. “You go to a dinner at a Russian home, and the Russians seem happier–they’re drinking, singing, telling stories.”

This public-private divide hints at a set of cultural rules about when to show your feelings. David Matsumoto, a psychologist at San Francisco State University who led a worldwide study of rules about emotional display, found that Russians control their expressions of emotion much more than Americans do. This is true of collectivist societies in general: Where people are more interdependent and group-oriented, they tend to either neutralize their emotional responses or mask one expression with another–especially with strangers and in public.

Tamping down emotional displays reinforces the borders between friends and strangers, which in collectivist societies are hard to cross. In individualist, mobile societies like the United States, in contrast, relationships come and go more easily, leading to more openness with everyone. Oblivious to these rules, both sides are bound to misread each other’s faces. Just as Americans mistake Russian reserve for surliness, Russians find friendly American smiles phony.

Moscow subway posters, however, have been urging the public to smile: “It’s an inexpensive way to improve your looks,” says the headline above an uncharacteristically cheerful metro worker. But it will take more than an ad campaign to change Russia’s deep-seated attitudes. Linguist Iosif A. Sternin of Russia’s Voronezh State University provides a sampling of the unwritten rules of smiling: A Russian smiles only for good reason–and only if the reason is apparent to those around him; it’s not customary to smile while helping customers, and it’s not customary to smile to lift another’s spirits.

No one is quite sure how Russians came to prefer neutral expressions to masking their emotions with smiles the way the intensely collectivist Japanese do. It might be that Russians, spread out on their vast land, had less need for pleasantries. Or Russia’s shortage of resources for coping with a harsh climate put its people in survival mode. Pile on a brutal history–especially in the Soviet era–and it’s not surprising that Russians are cautious around strangers.

Whatever the reason, it takes longer to befriend Russians. But as Matsumoto puts it, “Once you’re drinking vodka shots together, they’re more expressive than anyone else.”

Reprinted from Psychology Today (Jan.-Feb. 2009), a magazine that excels at putting emotional well-being in cultural context;

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