TO SMILE OR NOT TO SMILE
The other day I was catching up with a friend of mine who had just come back from Russia. Always exciting to hear about how foreigners experience your country, isn’t it? You never know with the Motherland though: to be fair, it does not always feel like the most welcoming place for tourists, so I was a bit apprehensive about what he was going to tell me. Luckily, my friend had a great time and enjoyed the trip very much even though there were, of course, a series of minor, less than fortunate events. So as I breathed a sign of relief my friend asked: “Why do people never ever smile at each other?”. This is a question I have come across many times in the years of living abroad, and I had my answer at the ready.
Thing is, the everyday ‘unsmilingness’ of Russians, at times mistaken for sullenness, is a very common notion. I would like to say it is a stereotype, but from a Western point of view it is, indeed, a reasonable observation. It is rare to see passers-by exchange a friendly smile, a bit less rare in the service industry and some institutions, but as a rule of thumb you best keep as neutral as possible. I have heard foreign tourists comment on it so much that, without further ado, my standard explanation usually goes as follows: “We smile when we mean it.” Unlike in many other cultures, the scope of politeness in Russia simply does not include said facial expression, period.
My friend was not too convinced though: “But how can people find smiles rude or offensive?”. That’s a fair question - smile is believed to be such a fundamentally universal expression of positive emotions that thinking it could be otherwise almost sounds absurd. I went on to elaborate that in Russia sincerity is a primary virtue, so a smile is a meaningful gesture that ranges from acknowledging someone’s presence to expressing fondness and intimacy. The context of a smile has to be clear, therefore it is never random in the sense that there is a genuine feeling to it. Yet even then reciprocating to a smile with a smile is not always the case; instead, it is an invitation to initiate contact. A ‘polite’ smile, in contrast, is considered insincere, as a desire to hide or conceal one’s true feelings. For historical reasons, in this society you are distrustful of anyone you don't know. If addressed to a complete stranger, a smile can be interpreted as a sign of romantic interest at best or as a smirk/smug and straight-up creepiness at worst, but all fall under invasion of personal space. In fact, pointing out that someone smiled out of politeness indicates an unfriendly attitude toward the person who smiled. In other words, a Russian smile does not happen “just because” or to make something “nice”, it is informative and requires a sensible foundation to begin with.
It is necessary to emphasise here that this social construct is not a kind of unspoken rule that one picks up with time, but rather a cultural value deeply implemented in folklore and is acquired pretty early on. There is a ton of proverbs that argue joking around ends in trouble (= a joke does not bring you to the good) and that those laughing for no apparent reason are fools. These expressions are not archaic, although you are more likely to hear them from older people. Go figure *cough*.
It is no wonder then that your immigration officer at the arrivals won’t be all smiles: they are supposed to be taking their job seriously, which, in turn, excludes smiles from the working routine. Or they could be not very nice people in general, but let’s stick to the more positive assumption. When I was writing up a draft for this blog post I stumbled across this video of Jake Gyllenhaal at the Late Show with David Letterman where he shares his account on the matter (from 3:58 on; it’s good, take a look!). What is actually interesting here is that to Americans, the practice of non-smiling is just as bizarre as to Russians the practice of saying “How are you?” in passing. The two notions are simply at opposite ends of the spectrum. In American communicative behaviour, the smile is first and foremost a sign of politeness, especially when it comes to public services. From the Russian point of view, the casual American smile could be perceived as friendly at first encounter, but its ubiquitous quality would have a completely different effect in due course.
These differences in ‘appropriate’ smiling behaviours are not just differences in social etiquette, they should be examined in a broader - and deeper - cultural context. Historians Carol and Peter Stearns noticed that “during the past two hundred years, Americans have shifted in their methods of controlling social behaviour toward greater reliance on direct manipulation of emotions.” Almost sounds like an extract from Brave New World, doesn’t it? If any display of all but positive emotions is frowned upon, then we have a very Huxley-esque situation indeed: “No pains have been spared to make your lives emotionally easy – to preserve you, so far as that is possible, from having emotions at all […] When the individual feels, the community reels.” Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer argued that Russians are in opposition to this approach. Taking pleasure in openly expressing the emotions as they come carries major cultural significance, as “feeling and expressing the emotions you feel is the sign that you are alive; if you don’t feel, you are to all intents and purposes dead.” Whereas behaviour described as emotional has a negative connotation in the English language, there is a considerable Russian vocabulary for the act of expressing emotions such as “pouring our one’s soul”, which is a valued part of living.
While nations usually tend to define themselves in positive terms like strong or prosperous, Russians seem to be more prone to associate themselves with negative feelings. Anyone familiar with Russian classical literature will be fast to remember that misery, fatalism, and apathy play a central role in a great number of stories. Writers were ready to pick up on the national sense of melancholy as a collective feeling of despair, sorrow, and heavy burdens. According to Dostoevsky, Russians have an innate need to suffer, and Russia, in essence, is a country of suffering. For suffering is a loaded term, rather than exposing yourself to pain his understanding implied thoroughly living through things, pouring your heart into them, and deeply caring. Dostoevsky is often regarded as the most striking exponent of this national quality: the Russian enigmatic passion for soul-searching that presupposes a certain masochistic self-reflection, the so-called nadryv (roughly translated as ’being overcome with emotions’), provides a core for the world of his characters. Partly based on these fictional personalities, Freud outlined an analogy comparing literary trends in national groups with neurotic behaviour of individuals. “Even those Russians who are not neurotics are deeply ambivalent”, he wrote in a letter to Zweig. Through the prism of Dostoevsky (an epileptic suffering from severe attacks) and his works such as Brothers Karamazov, Freud analysed Russia as a country of melancholic, nihilistic, and sexually repressive people. His notion of the Russian ambivalence included a destructive or self-destructive instinct mixed with creativity, a poor sense of self, combined with a need for a powerful authority figure in control. Judging by Freud’s observations, it is quite impressive Russians are still alive.
Another brilliant writer who advocated for a peculiar sense of Russian melancholy is Vladimir Nabokov, who identified the importance of Toska in the national psyche. This term describes a quintessentially Russian state of mind: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” . Linguist Anna Wierzbicka, who is famous for her outstanding work in cross-cultural linguistics, points out “different contexts may highlight different components of this complex but unitary concept”, and when used as a verb it refers to the anguish felt in response to the absence of something which is loved very much. The word defines a capacity for an expansive, articulate, and elaborate feeling of maddening ‘unsatisfiedness’, an insatiable searching, grand metaphysical anguish, while encompassing them all in one mental state.
Unlike sadness or apathy, toska is said to be a public, social mood. Fighting for survival was the daily reality for many Russians over the course of centuries. With the day-to-day life being very difficult for the majority of people, worry became the default look on a Russian’s face. It was particularly prominent in the years after 1905 as the writer and philosopher Dmitry Merezhkovsky described his walk around St. Petersburg in 1906 for the first time since returning from abroad: “Terrible toska on people’s faces”. Contemporary literature and newspapers of the time echoed this mix of melancholy and listlessness of the society in their works, although some perceived it as a way of broadcasting and spreading such dark moods. Writers and columnists argued: “The mirror is not to blame”. The years between 1906 and the war were also marked by an epidemic of suicides, with many felos-de-se leaving final notes; one frequently cited note read “toska, limitless toska”. So, if there is no good spirit and no material well-being, a Russian for the most part had no reason to smile.
It is not correct to claim that this state of melancholy or apathy is considered despicable in Russian society. Quite the opposite: it became one of the intrinsic concepts in Russian culture, a key to the so-called ‘Russian soul’, as Wierzbicka put it. In a way, toska can easily possess positive connotations - of poetic and metaphysical nature - as well as negative ones. But why are the Russians so prone to toska? As far as I can tell, there is a good explanation. There is a belief that by embracing such an unappeasable heartache and longing for something unattainable, one exercises his dusha, roughly ’soul’ (another fundamental notion of the Russian character). Some authors spoke of how spiritual geography corresponds with physical: the immensity of the land translates into a “predilection for the infinite” in the Russian soul. Perhaps this is why there is deep respect and appreciation for the beauty, even nobility of the concept of toska within our culture: it is an endeavour to achieve tranquillity in its own right. Russian culture has a lot of existentialism to it - something I believe Dostoevsky documented better than any other of our classics.