The Russians don't smile. Why?

A lot of people coming to Russia notice that Russian people don’t smile very much. “Why do you, Russians, always look so unhappy-miserable-glum?”

If we don’t smile at everyone it doesn't mean that we’re unhappy, sad or...rude. It’s just the way we are.

The linguists I.A. Sternin and Y.E. Prokhorov found out during their research that:

A Russian smile is different.
It’s a smile with the lips only. In rare occasions, you can see the top teeth a
 little. The Russians don’t do “a Hollywood smile” when one shows off all his teeth.

In Russian culture, such smile is regarded as vulgar and impolite. A big smile like that has even its special term in Russian – “a horse smile” (лошадиная улыбка)


Smiling is not the same as “being polite”.
A smile for the Russians isn't a sign of politeness like for instance in European or Eastern culture.
A polite smile for customers is called in Russian “a duty smile” (дежурная улыбка) and it is considered to be insincere.

No smiling at strangers!
The Russians don’t smile at strangers. One smiles only at someone he knows.
That’s why shop assistants don’t smile to the customers; they don’t know them, do they?
A smile might be regarded as an invitation to start a conversation. In the case of an accidental eye contact (which is a “no-no” !!!), a Russian person would avoid it and look away while an American, for example, would smile.

When we work we don’t smile!
The Russians don’t smile when at work.
Russian service industry has been struggling to adapt a welcoming smile for the last 30 years, but unfortunately smiling is not easy. Russian people read a “professional“ smile as an artificial grin, a mask hiding indifference.


Russian smile is sincere and for a reason.
When somebody smiles too much we find it suspicious. We might think that a person who smiles a lot for no obvious reason is a fool.
There is even a proverb in the Russian language: “Laughter with no reason is a sign of foolishness” (Смех без причины – признак дурачины)


Some scientists think that the Russian Orthodox Church has a lot to answer for, that it had it influence on the Russian mentality by forming an unfavourable attitude to laughing, being jolly, smiling. Laughter and joyfulness come from the devil. In the Middle ages, the Church pursued and prosecuted street performers, musicians and buffoons (скоморохи)

A. Vasnetsov.  Skomorokhi. 

Nikolay Berdyaev, a Russian religious and political philosopher, believed that the Russians were suppressed by the vast expanses of the country and by the harsh climate and that was why Russian people didn't smile too much.

But nevertheless, I hope you will find or already have that not all the Russians are glum and miserable, and most of them are very friendly and good-humoured.

E. Ivanova

(Based on the article “The Russians don’t smile?”


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