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“Why Russians Aren’t Smiling At You In Sochi”: The First Rule About Smiling Is You Do Not Smile At Russians

When Ed Leigh arrived in Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics, something struck him as odd: None of the Russians there returned his smiles.

When Leigh asked a native why that was, the man told him, “In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people—and rich people don’t walk on the street.”

For Russians, a smile in public is not the polite expression that Americans reflexively offer strangers on the street. A smiling person must have a good reason for doing it, and it should be obvious what that reason is. When people smile without hesitation—for no reason—Russians find those grins artificial or insincere. And they think those people have a few screws loose.

Americans, on the other hand, seem to smile for any reason at all. The “American smile” has a long-standing bad reputation in Russia, explained Michael Bohm, the opinion-page editor of The Moscow Times, in an in-depth 2011 story on the matter.

National distrust of the Westernized grin dates back to the early Soviet era, when anti-U.S. propaganda abounded. Later, in the 1980s, Soviet media regularly blasted reports called “Their Customs,” explaining that Americans, a power-hungry people, smiled to deceive others. Behind that smile was an “imperialist wolf revealing its ferocious teeth.” One prime example of that, Bohm writes, came in 1990, when then-Secretary of State James Baker used his “charming, cunning Texas smile” to trick former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev into agreeing to a unified Germany in exchange for the U.S. halting NATO’s eastward expansion.

“There’s so much to be happy about here!” the Soviet government told its people—guaranteed jobs and housing, free education, a nuclear war chest to protect the empire. The people, frowning as they waited in line to buy bread or milk, respectfully disagreed.

Russia’s poker face “has little to do with Dostoevsky or the cold climate,” Bohm says, and much more to do with centuries of government oppression and corruption. The very form of government can dictate how its people control their expression of emotions, according to David Matsumoto, an expert on micro-expressions, gesture, and nonverbal behavior. In collectivist nations, like Russia and China, people tend to neutralize happy expressions, blending in with the rest of the population. In contrast, members of individualist societies, like the United States, crack smiles freely and often, reflecting the openness of their political climate. The 2008 World Values Survey found that freedom of choice strongly affects people’s happiness.

Everyday life for Russian people has historically been grueling, a fight for existence. Their hardships were reflected in their expressiveness, and deep concern, along with a tangle of worry lines, became entrenched on their faces. Russia ranked 167th out of 178 countries on a “World Map of Happiness,” a 2007 survey of 80,000 people worldwide that measured a nation’s level of happiness by factors most closely associated with the emotions, such as health, wealth, and education.

All this research makes it sound like Russians are perpetually unhappy people, doomed for depressing lives. They’re not. Take it from this native Russian reporter.

Russians smile for genuine happiness—fair health, a pleasant mood, prosperity. All good reasons.

When two Americans make eye contact in a crowded restaurant, they smile out of habit. Russians look away instead, since smiling at strangers is a cultural taboo. The Russian cashier ringing you up at the grocery store won’t offer a smile because he doesn’t know you, and he won’t mimic your pleasant expression.

That cashier is also working, and Russians stay especially tight-lipped while on the job. Work, simply put, should not be fun or taken lightly. Russian President Vladimir Putin may look markedly sullen while standing next to his American counterpart, but it’s usually not because he is angry or upset—he’s just doing his job.

When Russians do crack a smile in public, it’s usually directed at someone they know. Still, they tend to smile only with their lips, revealing only a hint of the upper row of their teeth if the grin widens. Any more, and that smile comes off as unpleasant or even vulgar.

The biggest and most natural smiles come out at home, where Russians laugh and joke like any American would, with close friends and family members. But when someone brings out a camera, the corners of their mouths turn down again. The permanence of photographs makes the images somehow less personal and more public; they reflect how Russians appear to everybody else, including strangers on the street. Entire family photo albums capture not one smile. My Russian parents appear stone-faced in black-and-photos from their young adulthood, during beach trips and barbecues, at weddings and parties. They are not the same people who today, after 16 years in the United States, smile widely, flashing their white teeth, in front of the camera.

Russian culture is full of quirks many Americans would find strange, from making long and complicated toasts to never, ever throwing away a plastic bag. In 2011, singer Alina Simone offered a terrific explanation for why Russians hate ice cubes. This week, BuzzFeed‘s Ellie Hall documented their love of dill.

So, smiling in Sochi is a surefire way to reveal you’re an outsider—and probably annoy a native Russian—but, in modern times, it’s relatively harmless. Whatever you do, don’t play the “got your nose” game with a Russian. That hand gesture, a fist with a thumb between the middle and index fingers, is a lot less playful and a lot more offensive over there.


By: Marina Koren, The National Journal, February 7, 2014

February 10, 2014 Posted by | Olympics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Never Go With Carrots Only”: In Syria, President Obama’s Tough Line Paid Off

When the ancient Greek or Roman playwrights had painted themselves into a corner, plot-wise, they sometimes resorted to the dramatic device known as the deus ex machina, in which one of the gods was hoisted over the stage and dropped in to resolve the otherwise inchoate drama.

Something similar happened this week with Syria. The drama had progressed into a mix of international tragedy and domestic political bathos. President Obama’s threat of military action against Syria was right in principle but garnered no real political support — not least because Obama and his generals agree there is no military solution in Syria.

Cue the gods (in Moscow!): The stage directions may have been confusing, starting with a throwaway line from Secretary of State John Kerry, followed up quickly by his Russian counterpart. Then suddenly the stage was crowded with a cheering chorus that included U.S., French and Russian presidents, the U.N. secretary general, the Chinese and even Iranians.

Anyone who thinks this was simply a theatrical accident should go back to drama school. Obama, Kerry and the Russians have been talking about control of Syrian chemical weapons for many months, most recently a week ago at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. Let it be said that the mercurial Vladimir Putin (whom Obama regards as the most transactional leader in the world) knows how to propose an 11th-hour deal.

The deus ex machina has been cranked into place, but that doesn’t mean the Syria play is over. The complicated diplomatic part is just beginning. I hope Obama and his allies will keep in mind some basic principles, so that we don’t quickly return to another Syria breakdown:

● Obama’s tough line paid off. The Russians endorsed international control of Syria’s chemical weapons only after Obama threatened to attack and didn’t flinch in St. Petersburg or on Capitol Hill. He may be a weakened president in foreign affairs, but this show of strength regained him some precious credibility. As a Syrian rebel leader told me by phone Monday night, “Never go with carrots only.”

● The U.N. Security Council now moves to center stage. The right framework is the resolution France was drafting Tuesday, with U.S. help. It would require Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control for supervised demolition. Syria could face military reprisals if it violates this resolution, which the French are proposing under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes force. Finally, the resolution would call for punishment of those responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical attack. The Russians want to soften this language.

● The next step is revival of peace talks in Geneva, where elements of the regime and the opposition can negotiate a cease-fire and transition plan. The United States and Russia, as co-sponsors of these talks, should begin thinking now about how to prevent a chaotic vacuum and sectarian revenge-killing when a political transition begins. The lessons of Iraq and Libya are clear: Reconcilable elements of the Syrian army and state institutions must remain intact so they help the rebuilding.

● President Bashar al-Assad must go. The Russians know this; they’ve repeatedly said so privately to U.S. officials. Now they need to make it happen. U.N. inspectors have gathered evidence that Syrian civilians were killed by sarin nerve gas on Aug. 21; this action could have been done only by the regime. It would be politically dangerous, as well as immoral, to allow Assad to remain in power once these findings are disclosed.

● The United States should step up its training and supply of moderate Syrian rebels — less to topple Assad than to provide a counterweight to jihadists in the opposition and help stabilize a future Syria. The first CIA-trained commandos are now heading into the field, in units of 30 or 40. Step up that flow!

● Iran should prove that it deserves a seat at the Geneva table. It can’t be part of the Syria solution unless it changes its destabilizing policies — not just in backing Assad but also in its nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah and other actions. A new Iranian president and foreign minister will be in New York in two weeks. The Iranians and the Obama administration should think big about a new security framework for the region.

● Given the United States’ profound reluctance to fight another war in the Middle East, Israel knows it will have to take responsibility for its own security, including any military action against Iran. The good news is that Israeli power is robust and credible. Both Assad and the Iranians seem to be deterred from reckless action, and the Russians (in secret) are cooperative. Credible threats of force prevent wars.


By: David Ignatius, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 10, 2013

September 11, 2013 Posted by | Politics, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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