Here’s something that has always puzzled me, growing up in the U.S. as a child of Russian parents. Whenever I or my friends were having our photos taken, we were told to say “cheese” and smile. But if my parents also happened to be in the photo, they were stone-faced. So were my Russian relatives, in their vacation photos. My parents’ high-school graduation pictures show them frolicking about in bellbottoms with their young classmates, looking absolutely crestfallen.
It’s not just photos: Russian women do not have to worry about being instructed by random men to “smile.” It is Bitchy Resting Face Nation, seemingly forever responding “um, I guess?” to any question the universe might pose.
This does not mean we are all unhappy! Quite the opposite: The virile ruler, the vodka, the endless mounds of sour cream—they are pleasing to some. It’s just that grinning without cause is not a skill Russians possess or feel compelled to cultivate. There’s even a Russian proverb that translates, roughly, to “laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity.”
Russians’ fondness for the gentle scowl seems even more unusual to expats than its actual, climatic cold. And the cultural difference cuts both ways: Newcomers to America often remark on the novelty of being smiled at by strangers.
So why is this? Why do some societies not encourage casual smiling? I got my answer, or at least part of one, when I stumbled across a new paper by Kuba Krys, a psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences. In some countries, smiling might not be a sign of warmth or even respect. It’s evidence that you’re a fool—a tricky fool.
Krys focused on a cultural phenomenon called “uncertainty avoidance.” Cultures that are low on this scale tend to have social systems—courts, health-care systems, safety nets, and so forth—that are unstable. Therefore, people there view the future as unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Smiling is a sign of certainty and confidence, so when people in those countries smile, they might seem odd. Why would you smile when fate is an invisible wolf waiting to shred you? You might, in those “low-UA” countries, even be considered stupid for smiling.
Krys also hypothesized that smiling in corrupt countries would be, um, frowned upon. When everyone’s trying to pull one over on each other, you don’t know if someone’s smiling with good intentions, or because they’re trying to trick you.
Journal of Nonverbal Behavior
To test this theory, Krys had thousands of people in 44 different countries judge a series of eight smiling and non-smiling faces on a scale of honesty and intelligence. He compared their answers to the country’s rankings of uncertainty avoidance from a 2004 study of 62 societies and ratings of corruption.
He found that in countries like Germany, Switzerland, China, and Malaysia, smiling faces were rated as significantly more intelligent than non-smiling people. But in Japan, India, Iran, South Korea, and—you guessed it—Russia, the smiling faces were considered significantly less intelligent. Even after controlling for other factors, like the economy, there was a strong correlation between how unpredictable a society was and the likelihood they would consider smiling unintelligent.