Years ago when I lived in L.A., an Iranian-born friend of mine introduced me to the local Persian market. After countless lunches and dinners at her home, as well as my marriage into an Iraqi-American family, I had developed an affinity for Middle Eastern cuisine and wanted to try my hand at cooking it.
My friend had warned me that the shopping experience would not be what I was used to in American culture. She was right. The market was small and cramped, and women were bulldozing their way through narrow aisles with grim determination. The people who worked there were brusque. But what struck me more than anything was that no one smiled.
My husband explained to me that in Middle Eastern culture, people who smile all the time are considered fools. There are expressions in his language that basically translate into “grinning idiot.” Someone smiling in public for no reason is not to be trusted. This same cultural belief, I recently learned, is true in Russia. An Invisibilia podcast described the difficulty in opening Russia’s first McDonald’s and training Russian workers to smile. In Russian culture, one only smiles at one’s friends and family members, not strangers.
Here in America, smiling is ubiquitous. When I am out in public and make eye contact with a person, I usually smile, and they usually smile back. Friendly, smiling service personnel are the expectation here. And smiling can have many positive effects. One day during my teaching years, I stood outside my classroom door between class periods and noticed that every kid I saw was smiling. Even students I knew to be on the shy or surly side had a bright smile for me. Was something in my teeth? I wondered. Did I have a scrap of toilet paper dangling from the hem of my dress? As the bell rang, I realized that the students were all smiling for one reason: I was smiling at them.
Smiles can be contagious and make others feel welcome. The men and women who worked at the first Russian McDonald’s discovered that the Russian people started flocking to the restaurant, not so much for the food, but for the warmth and friendliness they found there. Studies have even shown that if you force yourself to smile, you will start feeling happier inside.
There can be downsides to all this smiling, of course. A perusal of one’s Facebook feed, for instance, can make a person feel as if the whole world is happy except for them. It can be challenging and exhausting at times to “put on a happy face.” And in the world of customer service, the expectation of smiling subservience can have a dark side. As explained in Invisibilia, in Russia, servers at restaurants were traditionally unfriendly and not particularly inclined to make customers happy. They had access to the food the customer wanted, and therefore they had the upper hand. The balance of power in American culture definitely lies with the customer, who in our tradition is “always right.” This can lead customers to be inconsiderate and even downright abusive at times with the expectation that the server is at their beck and call.
Smiling and friendliness can also conceal bad intentions. As the Temptations sang, “Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth.” I always think of glad-handing politicians when I hear that song. Lately the smiles of Paul Ryan and others on Capitol Hill have struck me as Cheshire-cat-like as they dismantle health care for the masses and hand out juicy tax breaks to the rich.
Yet I prefer to live in a culture where smiling is common. It can brighten someone’s day and make others around us just a little bit happier. Overall, I’d say that’s a good thing. As pop artist Sia sings, in America, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”