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Smiling in Russia

Nov 7, 2016

I heard a recent story on NPR about a young Russian in the 1980s who was swept up in the transformation when the Soviet Union dissolved and Russia opened to more Western companies. A McDonald’s franchise was opening in Moscow. This young man went to get a job and was accepted into the training program for front-line staff. Early on, trainees were told to greet customers with a smile. This standard practice in customer service shocked and frightened our young storyteller. In Russian society at that time, a smile was interpreted as insincere and even purposefully misleading or malevolent. They saw Westerners as untrustworthy and a smile as the way we mislead others into thinking we are happy, sociable, and caring when in fact we are hiding bad intent. Occasionally, of course, a smile can be fake, but when most of us smile, we feel happy, sociable, and caring.

It struck me that, to this day, I and other Westerners have not understood that basic cultural differences can relate to something as simple as smiling. Russians would not understand the currency of a smile as, yes, I am approachable and want to help you—and that as a front-line worker in the West, it would be useful to you. It certainly explains the stereotypical demeanor of peoples from other cultures who have seemed overly stern and solemn. Imagine how many times this still happens when we are unaware of the gender, cultural, ethnic, or racial differences. And instead we ascribe motives to others that may be completely wrong. As we deal with the difficult work of social change and preparing for increasing international connections, I guess we better understand that each of us has both individual and cultural perspectives—and that they are different for each of us. At BCTC, we are trying to understand, acknowledge, and celebrate our differences. Know that we are working together to use all our talents to meet students and others educational needs. Let’s try to communicate and understand each other.

Augusta A. Julian, Ed.D