Sometimes it is the small things, those that might go unnoticed or are taken for granted by most people that can have the greatest impact and make a lasting impression. To a Russian, Ukrainian or anybody from FSU, what small things might become immediately apparent when coming to the United States? One of the very first things I noticed in day-to-day interactions with people in the USA were the smiles and kindness openly shown between all people.
One might expect this treatment to be standard in the service sector for them to be successful. But I speak of the regular people – part of the anonymous crowds one passes on the streets everyday. Should one meet eyes with another, it is normal to offer a smile or a quick greeting of hello even though you don’t know them. If you meet a person on the street, in an elevator, walking a dog next to your house, it’s customary to greet or acknowledge them. If another driver lets you go first on the road or allows you to take a turn last minute, a polite wave of the hand is frequently seen as a sign of thanks.
As a contrast in social norms, try to wave your hand when you are driving around Petersburg, Moscow or Vladivostok or try to let other cars merge in front of you. You will either be ignored, mocked or taken advantage of in the traffic line. We have many gestures offered in traffic, but these particular gestures of gratitude are not yet part of Russian culture.
Russia, however, is constantly changing – evolving as influences from around the globe are more readily apparent. Every 2-3 months I go to Russia and I notice more and more positive changes. Recently, it has become more a prevalent part of our driving culture to flash one’s lights as a thank you when another lets you go in front or you just squeeze in… 🙂
How does this contrast with a Petersburg subway or out on the main streets? Even in the early morning hours when few are on the streets, one does not greet the person he does not know; instead, he walks past them as if they do not exist. Were you to offer greetings, you would likely receive a stare of disbelief mixed with the look that something must be seriously wrong with you. This is not to suggest that Russians are not, themselves, very open and hospitable with the people they know. The stark difference lies in the treatment of those with whom one has yet to be formally acquainted.
My Muj (husband) is of the strong belief that people are, by nature, very similar and mostly friendly. He says that a smile given freely is usually repaid many times over. In fact, to my discomfort, he was determined to conduct an experiment in the St. Petersburg Metro (subway) one day. While seated, he noticed a mother with her young boy (perhaps 5-6 years old) seated across from us. It was clear from the posture that the mother was not pleased with the boy and she gave him a scolding stare. He returned a pleading glance, but it was rebuffed with icy resolve. The boy pouted and whined. My husband happened to have candy in his pocket and he suggested offering this to the little boy to brighten his outlook. I was horrified that he would attempt to engage a stranger…on the Metro no less. I suggested that this was not wise, but he smiled at me and pressed forward.
He began by looking toward the woman until she noticed. When their eyes met, he smiled and pointed to the candy he had just pulled from his pocket. With a questioning look and a gesture toward the child, the mother instantly understood his intent. She smiled back and reached down to the boy. With a tap on his shoulder, he looked up to her and then followed her gaze to my Muj. Like an eagle atop a tree, scanning the valley for his next meal, the boy drew his attention instantly to the candy in his hand. His eyes grew wide and quickly looked to his mother for an approving nod, which she gave him with reassurance. My husband extended his hand, cradling the candy in his palm, and the boy gently retrieved it with a smile as wide as the Neva River. He glanced to his mother, then to me. Suddenly, the entire portion of the cabin was infected with smile that would not cease.
Once I was rushing into the mall in the US to pick up pictures, I ran into the door when it was about to close and by accident smashed into a person. To my surprise, this man apologized for being in my way…something I never expected to hear.
Whether one considers the ubiquitous American smile as sincere or just polite, I believe this represents something good for any culture to learn and accept. To see open faces, smiles and kindness between all people, not necessarily your friends, makes our every day life so much easier. For now, do not expect it to be a part of the daily Russian culture. Remain steadfast in the knowledge that once a Russian person gets to know you, all that they have will be shared with you.
Remember, smiles are infectious wherever they are tried. Keep smiling and walk through your life with your head up, eyes forward and a smile on your lips.