Following last week’s language fragments, yes: we can safely conclude that you really should learn some Russian to get the most out of your trip. Locals will appreciate that you have taken the effort to converse with them in their native tongue. Here are a couple more fragments that keep cropping up, and some of the advice that is given in response.
The smile thing. It’s another old chestnut that still keeps coming up. Perhaps this is a good sign; anyone that’s looked into Russian life and culture, even superficially, will know that they do smile, but the convention is markedly different. Therefore, continued enquiries into the subject must logically mean that there are new people who are taking an interest. Therefore, great!
Here in the west, the smile is a disposable commodity that, frankly, often means very little – such is it’s ubiquity. We throw smiles and platitudes around with abandon, ask, “How are you?”, with little interest in actually contemplating the answer. Interaction is often ritualised procedure, acts devoid of much meaning – or “superficiality” by any other name. It’s something that those from the east find disillusioning about our culture at best and irritating at worst.
The crucial difference is that in Russia, a smile means more – think of it as a small gift or token perhaps. It has value and means more than in our disposable culture. Therefore, the Russian smile is reserved for encounters that have more significance than a, “Have a nice day!” – handed out with all the sincerity of an automated announcement. Yes, you may find a Russian smile out on the street but it won’t be without appropriate “provocation” or reason, and certainly not to random, unconnected strangers. Once you have transcended the stranger barrier and have been accepted, then, welcome to a whole new world of Russian smiles, naturally (although they still don’t indulge quite as much as we do).
“…grinning without cause is not a skill Russians possess or feel compelled to cultivate. There’s even a Russian proverb that translates, roughly, to laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity.”
So, If you do take your western superficiality abroad, and walk around St.Petersburg beaming at everyone, then you’ll look:
A.) Like a tourist (and perhaps attract the wrong kind of attention).
B.) Very suspicious (and perhaps attract the wrong kind of attention).
I’d certainly be very wary of displaying this overtly western behaviour when out in the provinces and/or away from tourist-town.
So, stay safe, stay smart: don’t smile! (without a ‘good’ reason).
The laugh thing. Whilst on the subject of dubious displays of levity, let’s talk about laughter. Russian’s don’t laugh, right? Having made a few Russian connections, I can safely say that Russians do laugh, dare I say ‘a lot’, and they really mean it too. Again, the circumstances are extremely relevant. Out on the street in the cold light of day, you are unlikely to see many explosions of hilarity. It’s very similar in principle to the ‘rules’ governing wayward smiles, if you transgress. Additionally, you may also look ‘vulgar’, as loud, boorish behaviour is considered impolite, and uncultured.
However, I find that I often have “quite a hoot” with my Russian and Ukrainian chums, especially as -by chance- we share a slightly darker sense of humour, and that (fortunately) is a “thing” -in Russian circles, particularly.
Smile carefully, beware of unnecessary laughter.