Moscow quickly broke me of the habit of smiling and nodding at people on the street. First I noticed that people typically ignored each other on the street, unless they were looking for money or directions. Seeing as I was equipped to give neither of these, I started to look away. Then I realized that a young woman’s smile would mean something completely separate from her actual intentions, so I learned to keep my gaze down – or at least forward – and carry on my way. When talking to my professors about this difference, I heard two opposing viewpoints on the subject. The first was that American smiles are insincere and thus make up a negative cultural practice. This is compared to Russians’ glares, which can at least be considered accurate representations of their moods at the time and as such are honest and commendable. On the other hand, one professor argued that we Americans are in the right because smiles can be contagious, regardless of the actual level of happiness behind them. While I definitely appreciated hearing from this professor, I found that her thoughts were definitely in the minority.
This idea of honesty behind everyday Russian interactions became strengthened every morning as our professors started class with the typical “Как ваши дела?” or “how are you?” At the beginning of the semester, everyone answered “хорошо” (I’m good) or “отлично” (excellent). But our professors were suspicious that we all could truly be in good moods early in the morning and corrected us, saying more common answers are “нормально” (alright) or, if you’re even grumpier or sleepier, “так себе” (so-so). While in America we feel the need to demonstrate to even strangers that we’re feeling well, in Russia, it’s understandable and expected to truthfully describe your mood.
A third example of this part of the Russian mentality is the general attitude toward political correctness and protection of others’ feelings. As a social work major, I’m always concerned with semantics. Part of my future job is to carefully phrase statements as to offend no one, include everyone and make sure all parties’ interests are considered. If I were discussing anything – a book, movie, political leader, etc. – which might elicit different feelings from different people, I might wait until I heard others’ opinions before freely disclosing my own. Before that point, I would remain neutral and diplomatic. This was not the case in several interactions with my professors and host family in Russia. My grammar teacher would openly tell you that she hated the movie you went to see or disliked the prominent political leader who just made the news. In addition, terms for specific groups of people, whether in discussions about race or religion or any other factor, were less carefully used than we generally see in the United States. Yet while I might see some of these practices as being rude, cold or offensive, Russians take pride in the fact that they are speaking honestly.
I might not have picked up the straightforward social habits during my stay in Russia, but I did take home an admiration for such direct dialogue. While it took more time to acclimate to some of these changes than to others, I began to understand the Russian mindset and respect it for its values instead of measuring it against our own.
Anna Mendlein is a junior Social Work and Russian major who studied abroad in Moscow, Russia during the Spring 2014 semester. Anna is also a Peer Adviser at the Office of Education Abroad. Visit her during walk-in advising hours every M-F from 1-4pm or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.