Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Smile Like You Mean It

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You can not only accurately judge a person’s cultural level by the language they use, but also the level of their civic responsibility.

Konstantin Paustovsky

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Foreign visitors to Russia tend to complain about the same things… bureaucracy, bad roads, and a conspicuous lack of smiling faces. The Russian media address the first two topics regularly. Normal folk going about their day also routinely moan and scream about them. However, the third topic? Not so much. I spent most of my life in North Carolina… a place where smiles are a kind of social currency. Even as someone who speaks Russian fluently and generally feels as though she “fits in” in Moscow to a great extent, I’m still taken aback by the fact that Muscovites don’t smile when they greet you (hosts at hugely expensive restaurants notwithstanding… and anyway, I’m a real person living on a real income, I can never afford those places anyway). I’m not used to it, and perhaps I’ll never get used to it. It feels like a slight… if you’re used to the fact that smiling is the polite thing to do.

Still, I can’t help but chortle inwardly whenever I see visitors to Russia trying to “explain” this phenomenon away. “Russians had 70 years of communism! They dealt with Stalin’s terror! They lost millions of people in World War II! Of course they aren’t going to smile for you!” The implicit idea is that the lack of smiles is tied to depression over historic events. Whilst this may be true for some people, the overwhelming majority are just going along with a social custom, and the roots of that social custom are more complicated than “communism” and “ZOMG Stalin”.

An old Russian saying goes like this, “Laughter without cause is a sign of foolishness”. It sounds better in Russian, obviously, mainly, because it rhymes. In order to understand what this truly means for Russian society… you have to go back to the origins of the word “fool”. The word, in context, doesn’t just mean a silly person. It means someone who’s outside the mainstream… either someone who’s very eccentric, or someone who’s mentally ill. The history of the Russian smile would certainly make for an interesting book topic. For now, my own research suggests that connecting smiles with mental illness may have something to do with the role of medieval jesters in Russian history. Jesters were both entertaining and ominous figures… and their work employed a great deal of “abnormal” behaviour. Jesters commented on current events and politics via an exaggerated, often obscene, manner. Another Russian tradition involves holy fools, of course, or “blessed fools”… people whose intense commitment to the Christian religion crossed out all or most social norms. They were both revered and feared…  and their presence remains visible in Russia today. When these people smile, it’s interpreted as a reflex caused by their close connection to heaven.

Outside the historic and religious context, the Russian smile is a rare, but genuine phenomenon. It’s meant to be sincere, regardless of the social situation at hand (whether you’re smiling to express warmth and affection, or smiling sardonically, or smiling bittersweetly… you do it in a way that shows you mean it) and an insincere smile is derisively labelled as a dezhurnaya… AKA dutiful… smile. In one of the greatest memoirs of the 20th century, The Story of a Life, Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky once noted the practice of “smiling only with [your] eyes” in reference to the captain of a doomed vessel he met on the Black Sea coast during World War I. Although people very rarely talk about this practise, I can attest to the fact that it is very widespread in modern-day Russia. You just have to pay attention… and not rely on whatever social norms you may have learned elsewhere.

22 June 2012

Natalia Antonova

RIA-Novosti

http://en.rian.ru/columnists/20120622/174192101.html

Editor’s Note:

I’ve a reason for including the Paustovsky quotation. You see, people who smile overly much are fond of “therapeutic” language that hides rather than communicates. Often, it’s known as the California New Age attitude. We’ve all seen it… “Have a nice day” (accompanied by a large insincere “sincere” smile), when the person involved doesn’t give a damn for you one way or the other… smiling official portraits (shades of James Paffhausen, wot?)… and flowery commitment to vacuous ideology whilst screwing people right, left, and all around.

Americans want to prove that they “like” you… Russians want to prove that they “respect” you… there’s nothing similar in the attitudes at all. It’s why Russian Orthodoxy in the USA is at such a low point at present. There are too many smiles, too many outré statements of “what the Church teaches”, and too many green-as-grass clergy and monastics pretending to be elders. The Anglo-Saxon converts are trying to remodel Russian Orthodoxy in their own image… a smiling hypocritical smarmy nasty simulacrum of the real thing.

At my age (I’m in the latter stages of my sixth decade, nearing retirement), I trust NO ONE who smiles overly much. NO ONE. I’ve found that those who “smile” are often the worst sorts out there. That’s one of the reasons I find Paffhausen a joke… to have released an official portrait with a durak’s grin on his face was telling. The sooner he’s gone, the better… who shall be our Bennigsen?

BMD

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