Russians Are Hiding Something: a Smile - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Russians Are Hiding Something: a Smile

Russians Are Hiding Something: a Smile

By Sushmita Pathak


No grin doesn’t mean no joy.

By Sushmita Pathak

Liudmilla Titova, a Russian Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri, describes herself as “an extroverted, happy, out-there kind of a person.” She’ll flash you a smile on the subway or during those awkward seconds in an elevator. “But back home in Russia, this kind of behavior was definitely frowned upon,” she says.

Because according to a recent study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology:

Russians hide their happiness from strangers.

The study surveyed a group of 155 students: 67 Russians and 88 Americans. The study found that only 15 percent of the Russian respondents would express happiness to anyone, compared to 62 percent of Americans. And it’s not just about smiling at strangers. The Russians were also less likely to express happiness to acquaintances — almost half as likely as Americans.

However, the lack of a toothy grin doesn’t mean that Russians are unhappy, the study found. “In addition to surveying the inhibition of happiness, we also studied the subjective well-being,” says Titova, one of the study’s authors. Turns out, Russians are just as happy as Americans. They just don’t show it.

Western cultures give more significance to the individual, and happiness confirms their worthiness.

Why? Blame the culture, says Mohsen Joshanloo, a psychologist at Keimyung University in South Korea, who studies how different cultures view happiness. Expressing joy and contentment is “less strongly emphasized in many non-Western cultures,” he says, and “less frequent in professional and social contexts.” 

Furthermore, the importance given to happiness is very different in Western and non-Western countries. According to Joshanloo, Western cultures give more significance to the individual, and happiness confirms their worthiness, showing that things are going well for them. Whereas in Eastern cultures, “people are usually taught to sacrifice their personal happiness for the well-being of others,” he says, adding that in such contexts, expressing one’s sense of happiness may actually make the person look selfish.


Still, when it comes to showing joy to significant others, Russians don’t hold back, Titova and her colleagues found. In fact, they out-express their jovial American counterparts by 3 percent. 

Titova says their study can help raise cultural awareness and improve cross-cultural communication. If your Russian colleague or friend appears stony, don’t assume something’s wrong. Likewise, if you’re in a meeting with a Russian, be mindful that smiling excessively might put them off.

While interpreting the results of such studies, it’s important to keep in mind that getting your grin on isn’t good or bad per se, notes Joshanloo. No culture should be looked at negatively for the value it places on expressing emotion. Don’t believe in smiling at everyone in the hallway? It’s cool — you’re not a douchebag.

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