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A Land of Rare Smiles

posted by zaina19 on December, 2005 as ANALYSIS / OPINION

From: MSN NicknameEagle_wng  (Original Message)    Sent: 12/2/2005 1:29 AM

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A Land of Rare Smiles

Created: 29.11.2005 14:25 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 15:01 MSK > document.write(get_ago(1133265660)); </SCRIPT>

Lisa Vronskaya


I have no idea who it was who invented the myth about Russian women being more beautiful than the female human species in other parts of the world. Maybe it is merely a sequel to a Soviet-era joke where a Japanese tourist, before leaving Moscow and asked what he liked best here, answered: “Your children… While everything that you do with your own hands is terrible.”

The problem with Russian women — and not only women, too — is that they rarely smile. Unfriendly people just can’t be pretty.

Although times are changing and these days you can see more smiles on the faces of waiters, flight attendants, hotel receptionists and check-out girls at grocery stores, but those smiles are not always sincere as those people risk losing their jobs if they don’t grin.

Of course, Russia could be a more pleasant place to live if more people smiled. Ironically, people who come to Moscow from provincial Russian towns are struck just as much as foreigners are by the sullen look on the locals’ faces.

My friends at university who came to Moscow from other parts of the country used to point out the kinder, friendlier ways of their folks back home, as compared to the capital. Could it be a problem of big cities, then?

I remember back in the 1990s when I started my career as a secretary at a Moscow office of a large oil firm. We had an American secretarial instructor there who brainwashed us — a staff of about a dozen secretaries and assistants — that we must always smile no matter what happens, especially when we pick up the phone and tell the caller the name of the firm. They will hear a smile in your voice, she used to say, and smile back.

In earlier years our compatriots who traveled abroad were conspicuous by their loud conversations, thinking that no one around them could understand a word in Russian. Nowadays they are much better behaved — and dressed — but they are still conspicuous because of their reluctance to smile.

Earlier people here used to say that Russians smiled very little because life is so hard. But because things are now looking up, aren’t they supposed to smile more often?

Russians said Americans with their all-smiling attitude towards life look ridiculous, but hostility is hardly any less ridiculous.

I am not trying to say here that all Russians without exception are unfriendly and rude, no. Perhaps, you may have noticed already that people are unfriendly only when they are strangers; once they are acquainted, have gotten to know each other and like each other they change.

I’ve heard visiting foreigners say that it is untrue that Russian people do not smile, they are much friendlier and easy-going than other Europeans, especially in large groups while drinking… But you don’t spend the majority of your life in bars or restaurants.

A former colleague, who is a U.S. national, suggested in his column some time ago that Americans are not fair in demanding, say, an exhausted flight attendant on board a Russian plane to smile. But flight attendants on other, non-Russian planes, face the same problems she has to tackle such things as screaming babies and drunk passengers, handing out dinners and serving drinks as well as the “ill effects of jet lag, cabin pressure and high-heel shoes…” Nevertheless, they smile partly because they know sullen looks could cost them their job, and partly because whatever problems you have to face, other people are not to blame for that.

“In Russia we have a saying,” Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova, a specialist in Slavic smiles at Moscow University, told a BBC correspondent in Russia. “Smiling without a reason is a sign that you’re crazy.”

Russians, she claimed in an interview, will only smile at you when they really mean it, and that makes them more sincere. “Americans overdo it. They smile at every step and for them a smile is a sigh of prosperity. But a smile is more precious in a nation where people don’t smile so eagerly and so automatically.”

Markus Luken, human resources manager for Ikea in Russia believes that if Russians don’t want to smile, you can’t make them. “You cannot force people to smile. People have to smile because they are satisfied with their jobs, their lives, their performance. Then they will smile automatically.”

…I got stuck in a human traffic jam the other day as I was changing trains in the Moscow metro. The grumbling crowd was moving slowly and awkwardly into a narrow passage towards an escalator. In an attempt to cheer them up the metro attendant seated next to the escalator began to talk to the crowd. “Come on, come on, dear passengers!” she chanted in the friendliest tone she could muster.

“Go ahead, don’t linger. Unfortunately, repair work is underway and only one escalator is in operation, but it is just a temporary inconvenience. In a year the repair work will be over, but meanwhile, go ahead, and watch out once you are on the escalator. They can be dangerous.”

And so she went on and on. People in the crowd began to smile. Some even laughed. It was an unfamiliar feeling, but it felt so nice to see so many people smiling. Whatever the reason.

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