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Three Reasons Russians Smile Less Than Americans

World Cup soccer fans in Russia have been laughing, crying, and screaming as their favorite teams win or lose. But Russians themselves aren't known for their emotional displays. In fact, in the lead up to the World Cup, Russian workers actually got training on how to smile at visiting fans. Which raises a question: Why?

Why do some cultures smile more than others? Masha Gartstein is a professor of psychology and director of advanced programs at Washington State University and she's written about what she calls, "the smile gap."

"Russians are suspicious of people who appear to be smiling for no reason, and at worst are probably thinking that perhaps there is some intellectual deficits, or maybe even mental illness behind this seemingly unnecessary expression of positive emotionality," Gartstein said. 

There are a variety of reasons for this cultural difference. One of them is the fact that historically, there used to be vast differences in commerce.

"Back in the days of USSR there was of course no pressure to provide any kind of customer service because nothing was consumer driven." 

That's part of the backdrop. Another part, Garstein noted, is that there really isn't a smiling deficit in Russia. It's a smiling gap.

People there just don't display their emotions publicly, like we do in the U.S. "Things work very differently with with people that you do know inside the family home, or with close friends and colleagues."

So it's more about how one expresses emotions in the public context. However, there's also the idea of the genuine smile versus a forced one. 

There are voluntarily-driven smiles, and there are more orchestrated smiles.

"One of the things that we find when we look across cultural differences in temperament, is that smiling is more closely linked to self-regulation," Garstein said. 

Smiling, when not genuine, can be seen as a kind of manupulation. So perhaps the stereotype is upside-down. 

Americans have been thinking that Russians don't smile because they're not as happy, but it may in fact be that it's those of us who are smiling at strangers all the time who are feeling a little off, and maybe those who don't feel the pressure to smile are just kind of at home with themselves. 

Smiling or straight-faced, there's a lot of context and history behind public displays of emotion.  

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.