Worried that tourists will confuse local brusqueness for inhospitality, Russian public transport authorities are teaching their workers how to smile.
Russia will host the FIFA World Cup this month, with national teams from 32 countries flocking to 11 of the country’s European cities, bringing with them legions of fans. Service personnel who will be dealing with World Cup fans in different capacities have received training on managing the impending tide of international visitors such as helping transport employees near stadium routes to brush up on their English. In some cases, transport authorities are going even further to accommodate visitors, opening seminars on smiling to offset more somber-faced staffers, the BBC reported.
“Russian people usually don’t smile,” Elnara Mustafina, a psychologist conducting the seminar for Russian Railways conductors said. “That is why when other people come to Russia they say that Russian people are not friendly.”
The stereotype of the cold and stone-faced Russian looms large in Western pop-culture and Moscow has been hailed as the world’s most unfriendly city in 2015. Mustafina believed this has less to do with some perpetual sense of moroseness than it is with the view among Russians that one’s default look should not be one of happiness.
“We need to teach them how to smile,” Mustafina said. “We need to change their attitude.”
Part of the lesson involved group exercises and the use of charts showing how to achieve a “beautiful smile” using a technique developed by “Japanese beauty masters.” The six-step process aims to train cheek muscle memory and instructs the learner to bite down on a wooden pencil, spanning the corners of the mouth, gradually curving the edges up until somewhere between eight and 12 top-row teeth are showing. Cheek massage is also apparently key to the process, according to a copy of the chart obtained by the BBC.
While far from being especially joyless, a recent study found that Russians are less likely to evaluate a smile from someone they are not engaged in verbal conversation with positively. A study of 44 different cultures in 2015 found that Russians are the fourth most likely people to regard a smiling stranger as “significantly less intelligent” and ninth most likely to perceive a smiling person as dishonest.
“I got stopped by a policeman and I was quite angry about it and he asked me to show my ID,” Yulia Melamed told the BBC. “Afterwards I asked him why did he stop me and he said to me ‘because you were smiling’.”
“It is strange—just a person walking on the street and smiling,” she said. “It looks alien and suspicious.”