A German friend once asked me,"Why are Russian people so gloomy? Nobody smiles here”. I looked around and noticed that indeed, almost nobody in the Moscow subway was smiling. I said, "Why should they?” My friend raised his eyebrow in astonishment and changed the subject.
I remembered our conversation and started searching for the answer to why Russians are seldom found smiling. A few months later I found a very solid and thorough explanation in the article “A Smile in Russian Communicative Behavior” by Igor Sternin. Dr. Sternin explained that in Europe or North America, smiling is a sign of politeness. When you see people smiling at you in the USA or Germany, it doesn't mean anything other than an overall neutral attitude toward you. A smile is a “level zero” in communication.
By contrast, in Russia, no smile is a sign of a neutral politeness, and a smile is always informative. A Russian smile is always personal. When a Russian smiles to you, he or she whats to say that he or she likes you sincerely. When Russians visit Europe or North America for the first time, they enjoy looking at smiling faces, because they (we, Russians) take it personally.
We really believe that everybody abroad is very kind. After a few days, Russian tourists learn that a smile here actually means nothing and start blaming locals for insincere smiles. “They smile at you all the time. You think they love you, but in fact, they love your money”, my friend complained to me bitterly. I tried to explain to her, “You don't have to take it personally, they just want to be polite with you”. Her reply was, “I'd rather them be sincere,”. Every time I cross the Russian border, I remind myself to smile in order not to have that gloomy Russian look.
In Russia, it is not common to smile at strangers. When you smile at a stranger in Russia, you may get the question “Have we met?” in return, because Russians normally smile only to people they know. Also, this is not common to smile when dealing with more serious issues. You wouldn't see many smiling faces in business meetings, because business is serious, and by smiling, you show that you either don't take it seriously or you distrust your partners' words. Russian shop assistants are trained to smile, because smiling while serving people is unnatural for Russians. “I'm taking you seriously, you are important to me, so I don't smile” is the natural Russian approach to a smile.
Russians don't use a smile to cheer up anybody. When visiting somebody, who is experiencing hard times or deep sorrow from a loss, Russians don't smile. A smile would be considered offensive. If you smile, you show that you don't respect the person, you don't care about his or her feelings, and that you find the situation funny.
Quite often, Russians smile not “at”, but "about" something. For example, if I walk down the street and notice that people start smiling when looking at me, I'd think that there is something wrong with my appearance, then stop and check whether everything is fine with my clothes.
Russians need a particular reason to smile. You've heard good news and you smile to show that you consider this news as good. You feel really great and you wear a big smile, so everybody understands you have something really good happening in your life. You have to have a special reason for laughter too. There is a popular Russian saying, “A laughter without a reason is a sign of stupidity” meaning that you might be very stupid or crazy if you laugh at nothing.
Note: The original of the article is taken from Proper Russian — a website about Russian language, literature and culture.