Monday, February 15, 2016

Why don't people smile here?

By Michael

As expats*, I think it's partly our responsibility to try and understand the culture we are in instead of simply reacting to it. It's very easy to go to another country and say, "I like this, and I don't like that." Yulia and I certainly do that many times. But after a while, you start to think more deeply about the things you don't like. Why is it this way, and why do the locals accept it?

In this short post, I simply want to consider something that is not only unique to Ukraine, but something I hear many travelers and expats discuss when abroad--the lack of smiling in public. In our last post about traveling to Italy for a week, I mentioned how Italians do smile to strangers and that it wouldn't be a bad thing if Ukrainians started doing it. To be fair, many Ukrainians do smile to me, from the owner of the pet shop I went to yesterday to the wait staff at our local vegetarian restaurant. But as a general rule, yes, Ukrainians do smile less in public.

Instead of dismissing all Ukrainians as surly and rude, I want to look past the surface just a little bit. Does a lack of smiles really mean that everyone is unhappy?

To try and understand this, I first want to reflect on myself. As you know from this blog, Yulia and I spend much of our time renovating our house. Right now I am in the middle of building our bathroom. I spend a lot of time at the hardware store buying things I've never bought before like mosaic tiles and sinks. These items themselves cost a lot of money and, of course, I must remember to buy all the little odds and ends--screws, grout, caulk. If I forget something that means I can't do what I wanted to do until I drive back to the city to get what I need. If I make a big purchase and buy something the wrong size or color, I'm committed to that mistake--so it's better to just not make those mistakes in the first place.

Therefore, when I'm at the store, I'm concentrating on all the minutiae. Did I buy enough lumber? Is the plywood I got the right width or should it have been 2 millimeters thicker? Do I have enough money to get what I need? Can I even fit everything in my car??

As I'm running through all these details in my mind, I might not be thinking about smiling to the person helping me at the store. I say please and thank you of course, but I'm most focused on not making mistakes. I'm not going to grin at the guy who just got in a fork lift and brought down a sink from the top shelf at the big box hardware store and then say, "Oh I actually wanted that model or that color, sorry!"

On the other end, the seller has his or her own responsibilities. They need to make sure they're mixing the right color paint, for example, so they don't have to explain to their boss why they just wasted fifty dollars worth of paint.

In addition to concentrating so as not to make mistakes, I think that looking someone in the eye with a straight face is a display of sincerity. It shows you are taking the other person seriously and not trying to pull one over on the other person. Yulia and I have noticed, especially with the older generation here in Ukraine, that you do have to be careful at times so as to not get taken advantage of. A few weeks ago, a man that we had never seen before came up to our front gate and shouted for us to come over.

"Слава Ісусу Христу! [Glory to Jesus Christ!--a formal greeting to older people and the clergy in Ukraine]" he said with a wide grin on his face.

We soon found his formal greeting was just to butter us up.

"Can you lend me some money? Somebody is coming by to pick up a debt I owe them today. I live in the neighboring village, and I see you drive your car by my house from time to time."

"Sorry, but we don't even know you," we responded. "And why wouldn't you ask friends or family in your own village for help first?" We weren't trying to be hard on him on purpose, but when you think about it, it is kind of fishy that he wouldn't ask someone he knew before us. And if he did ask someone he knew and they refused, they probably had a good reason why. We know from experience that friends and family are not the best at paying back loans. Why, then, should we trust a stranger?

Even after we refused to give him money, he persisted. A conversation like this gets frustrating quickly. Once he realized that these Americans wouldn't be lending him any money that day, he gave us a rude look and moved on.

"Слава Ісусу Христу my ass," Yulia said as we walked away.

It's actually quite common for locals to ignore us until they need something--then the smiles and courtesy come out. The contrast is most stark in one older woman who lives down the street from us. If I see her outside as I'm walking to the spring, I'll always say hello. My greeting is usually met with silence--maybe a nod of the head if she's feeling particularly social that day. However, if she's interested in hearing the latest gossip, she'll be at the fence in a second with a smile on her face. She'll make small talk briefly and then move right on to the probing questions.

These, and other experiences, lead me to believe that a straight face may be a signal to other people that you can be trusted. I'm sure I'm not the only person here who has had such experiences, and I'd imagine that after a lifetime, one might begin to internalize these social gestures.

If you are used to smiling being equated to taking advantage of other people, maybe a straight face is just like straight talk. Maybe it doesn't mean that someone is unhappy. Perhaps, consciously or subconsciously, it means, "I'm focused on helping you. I'm sincere. You won't get any funny business from me."

What are your experiences? Do any of you live in places where people don't smile a lot in public? Why do you think they don't smile?

*Yes, Yulia is from Lviv and all of my grandparents were from Ukraine, but in many ways Yulia and I are just like many other American expats. Up until moving here, we had spent all of our adult lives in the United States and were well accustomed to living there. For Yulia and me, the culture of the US is what we consider "normal" or baseline--in short, it's all we know. Ever since we moved to Ukraine, we have been saying to each other, "Wow, that's different!" just like your average American might say.

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