Cultural differences explain emotional expression
What does a smile say about the differences between American and Russian culture?
Published: Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 00:12
Looking through black-and-white photo albums from my parents' glory days in 1970s Soviet Russia, I flip through slightly faded pictures snapped at birthday parties, beach trips and weddings. In one photo, almost white at the edges, my mother stands in front of the Black Sea, arm-in-arm with her best friend from high school. In my parents' wedding photo, the bridal party surrounds the happy couple, perched at the top of a flight of stairs.
These scenes are typically festive occasions. But you wouldn't be able to tell that from these photos.
"Mama, why isn't anyone smiling in any of these photos?" I ask my mother after my fourth batch of albums full of sullen-looking Russians. "We don't smile in pictures," she says, shrugging over her morning tea, then adds, after my incredulous stare, "It's ze truth."
It's true. Historically, Russians don't smile in photos. Or in public. It's as if every street in the Russian Federation is populated by angry New Yorkers constantly checking their watches and swearing at the jerk who just stole their cab. But even busy Manhattanites who have traded suburbia for bitterness flash their pearly whites as they pose in their wedding gowns or stand triumphantly in their hiking boots beside a waterfall.
According to a study conducted two years ago by psychologist David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University, Russians control their expression of emotion, namely smiling, much more than Americans do. The study attributes this to the nature of collectivist societies: where people are more group-oriented, they tend to neutralize these expressions, especially in public. In contrast, members of individualist societies like the United States toss smiles around like rice kernels at a wedding, promoting more openness in general.
While it's true that Russians are generally less happy than Americans, experts say the former's national poker face doesn't indicate that Russians are bitter, miserable people. They may be cold over there, but they're not that cold. While Russians look like they mean business on the outside, at home, surrounded by family in front of a large pot of borscht, they are warm-spirited and jovial.
The truth is that Russians are simply very big on the private-public divide. There are distinct rules about when it's appropriate to show emotion and when it's time to freeze up those smile muscles. My mother, after 13 years in the States, offers everyone she sees a big smile as she walks from her car to her office building every morning. But when she flies to Russia to visit family, she knows to stay tight-lipped while walking around our hometown. Smiling is reserved for close friends and family—grin at a stranger in Moscow and they're likely to feel put off.
As I learned during a family reunion in Germany three years ago, these cultural rules extend beyond proper smiling etiquette. While sightseeing with my extended Russian family in Munich, my dad realized he had to return to the hotel to pick something up. The rest of us were staying, so my sister and I each gave our dad a big hug, which is pretty standard behavior for us (we'd put those wrap-up scenes in "Full House" to shame). A silence came over the grandmothers, uncles and aunts. Had they really just witnessed this expression of pure—dare I say it?—American emotion?
"Aww," my paternal grandmother exclaimed, after a few awkward moments that involved me looking around, entirely unaware of my faux pas, and the others with their mouths slightly open. "Zey actually hug each other!" The reactions from my other family members further confirmed my suspicious: hugging in public was the Russian version of the unicorn.
I'm not an expert on cross-cultural studies, but I've been able to experience both worlds— the smilers and the non-smilers, the openly affectionate and the marble statues. I was raised by Russian parents but spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood in the states. In photo albums from our first year in America, circa 1997, my sister and I are always smiling. My parents, sticking to their Soviet roots, are not. But it seems that over time, they became "Americanized;" now, when my mom returns to the motherland, she has to stop herself from smiling at others in a store or restaurant. So there's a clear difference between Russian and American culture when it comes to expressing emotion—but it can be bridged.
Maybe my sister and I brought home what we learned in school—that smiling is contagious. Maybe my parents felt the pressure to conform when they realized almost everyone greeted them in the supermarket. Maybe it's the shortage of open emotion my parents experienced as children themselves, which they often cite as the reason they always hugged my sister and I as kids, and continue to do so even though we're both in our 20s.
Or maybe it's just the warmer climate.