Smiiiile! (or….maybe don’t?)

Some days ago I went to my manicurist for a manicure, a latte macchiato and a nice chat (yes, it’s a hard life, I know). When I entered, two women sitting at the other manicure table looked at me and gave me beaming smiles. I stopped and through my mind raced a worried thought: “Do I know these ladies? I’ve never seen the one lady and the other just started working here, I think I saw her once for two minutes. So, if I don’t know them, why are they smiling at me like I’m their long-lost sister? What’s wrong with them?” Your reaction to my reaction will probably depend on your own culture – are you from a culture where there is a lot of smiling or one where, like in Germany, smiles are used more sparingly?

Don’t worry, we do smile in Germany. Even at strangers – my favourite cashier at Rewe always greets people with a nice smile. But we don’t smile as often as people from some other countries do and a smile (outside of customer service) connotates some familiarity. If you smile too much (also meaning the degree of the smile) at people you don’t or hardly know, they might be bewildered. The explanations of why some cultures smile more than others are varied and sometimes even contradictory, but there are some interesting reasons of why people (don’t) smile.

I think we can all agree that Germany is a rather non-smiling culture. Something I keep hearing from expats coming here is that they have the impression we are cold and unfriendly. One American lady said to me: “Germans don’t like me.”
I thought that was a very general statement and asked back: “Your impression is that Germans in general don’t like you? Why do you think so?”
“Nobody smiles at me.”
Well, I could comfort her there (and I had to smile a bit) and tell her that people didn’t necessarily smile at me or others in general either. The lack of a ready smile should not be confused with a lack of friendliness or liking. I know that is easier said than done. One thing I kept hearing about the Polish people was that they smile even less than Germans (yes apparently that is possible). I heard it from expats, I heard it from Polish friends and I kept hearing that it was nothing personal. So rationally I knew it – and I come from a non-smiling culture myself. No big deal, one would think. Yes…well…it made me feel uncomfortable and during the days I spent in Poland, I desperately tried to coax a smile out of someone. In spite of everything I knew about smiling and non-smiling cultures, reservedness and the like, in spite of not really noticing or caring much if people smiled at me in Germany, it was somehow an issue that the Polish people didn’t smile. Maybe it’s because one already feels more insecure in another country, with a different language, different culture – one looks for some comforting sign that one isn’t making any mistakes. Maybe the small difference in smile frequency was enough to make me compare the occasional-smile-culture of my home country with the hardly-ever-smile-culture of Poland. It was an extremely interesting experience for me and helped me with my intercutural work, because before I had thought that the explanation “Germans just don’t smile a lot, don’t take it personal” would be if not fully sufficient then at least comforting. I also realized that smiling is simply an extremely symbolic gesture. It’s easier not to take different ways of getting (shaking hands vs bowing, for example) personal. They are rituals whereas a smile is natural. Babies don’t shake hands or bow, but they sure smile. So the connection to emotions is deeper.

So, why do some culture smile more than others? In trainings I often use the US (total smiling culture) as the opposite to Germany. It’s easy, I merely ask: “Picture President Obama. What is his expression?” I nearly always get the reply “He is smiling,” or “He is laughing.” Then I say: “Now picture Chancellor Merkel. What is her expression?” As long as people don’t think of her when we won the World Cup (those were the days!) the answer is “Serious” or “Frowning, unhappy.”
This example already helps to show some of the cultural differences that affect smile. A major word in Germany is “seriös”. That’s a big praise in the business or political world. If you translate this word into English, the result is “serious”, but that doesn’t to it justice. Seriös is so much more! It means reliable, dignified, not prone to recklessness, takes things seriously, recognizes problems and solves them, has earned respect. If someone in a position of responsibility and/or power smiles too much or makes jokes, we Germans are starting to wonder if that person is seriös enough to handle the responsibility and power.
So – smiling can be seen as a sign that things are not taken seriously enough.

Another issue is German formality and high value of privacy. I tend to tell people that Germans are a bit like an old car – they need a while before they are running, need a warm-up phase. There is more about this in my peach and coconut article. Germans don’t show familiarity right away, we also see reserved behaviour as a sign of respect. A Brazilian training participant recently told me how irritated she was that while we Germans say “hello” when entering an elevator and “good-bye” when we leave, there is no conversation during the elevator ride if people don’t know each other. She said, in Brazil people would just start chatting at one another, where as in Germany we stand in this small compartment, looking straight ahead, saying nothing. I told her that this was a sign of the respect for privacy. Most people – me included – would be rather irritated if strangers started chatting with them for no reason at all (with “no reason” I mean a task-oriented reason; “being sociable” is not a reason here). It’s similar with a smile, a smile connotates familiarity, is a sign of establishing contact. In a culture where one does not easily establish contact with strangers and where formality is a sign of respect, smiling at strangers would be considered too familiar and too informal.

Take the US on the other hand. It’s informal and establishing contact with strangers is part of American culture. Think back to pioneer/frontier days…imagine you are just fighting your way through dense woodwork, haven’t spoken to anybody for days and are running low on supplies. The moment you reach a homestead, a settlement or even meet another person in the woods, it’s your chance to exchange news, replenish supplies. Establishing contact quickly usually brought positive things and could even be important. It’s a completely different mindset.

The peach and coconut example shows how open, smiling cultures and reserved, less-smiling cultures perceive each other. While the “peaches” consider a lack of smiling a lack of friendliness, the “coconuts” reserve a smile for those who are close to them. Reserved “coconut” cultures usually don’t express their feelings openly and so keep (reserve!) such emotional display for those who are close to them. Smiling at everyone seems dishonest to these cultures because then the smile loses its meaning as a symbol for “I honestly like you.” Germans often say that Americans are fake, that their friendliness is dishonest. I would say that Americans are not fake and Germans are not unfriendly, both culture just have different understandings or when, how and why they open up to others. This could be transferred to smiling or non-/less-smiling cultures in general.

An important aspect is also that of uncertainty avoidance or corruption. This goes a bit beyond the scope of German attitudes to smiling, so I will refer you to this article, which explains it well. This excerpt sums it up well: “…smiling in corrupt countries would be, um, frowned upon. When everyone’s trying to pull one over on each other, you don’t know if someone’s smiling with good intentions, or because they’re trying to trick you.”

In Asian countries, smiling can have yet another connocation: hiding shame. If you have an employee from an Asian country who just made a big mistake and you are telling him openly, chances are that the employee will start smiling. Now, don’t get upset, thinking that your criticism is being ridiculed – this smile is an uncomfortable one, a sign of embarrassment. Keeping face is a major concept in Asian countries and a scolding is definitely one of those things that result in someone losing face. Smiling is an attempt to hide and relieve the tension.

To add one more component into the complicated world of smiling: collectivism. Collectivist cultures tend to smile less at strangers. Group feeling is strong in collectivist cultures and one tends to view people outside of the group with some suspicion. (You are probably not surprised now to read that the US is the least collectivist culture in the world).

So, if someone smiles at you, it can have many meanings: the person is used to express feelings openly, is informal, values relationships, opens up quickly. Or the person is about to deceive you and want to make you think they have friendly intention. Ah, no, the person is quite ashamed and uncomfortable with something you said. Hmmmm….

Person not smiling at you? Well, maybe the person doesn’t like you or is just generally unfriendly. Maybe the person had a bad day and just want to get home. Or the person has no feelings towards you at all, neither positive nor negative, and simply doesn’t see a reason to smile unless there is a close relationship. No, this must be it: the person sees that you are not part of his/her group and doesn’t quite know what to think of you, so rather wants to be careful. Hmmmm…

Basically, it’s hard to say why someone is smiling or not smiling at you. Knowing more about the person’s culture helps a lot – as is usually the case with intercultural encounters. So when you come to Germany and nobody smiles at you, remember: we need time to warm up, we usually reserve smiles for those close to us, we strive for being seriös at work, we are not very emotionally expressive, unless we win the World Cup (ah…the days…).

To read some more about the differences of smiling around the world, you can refer to these interesting articles:

The Meaning of a Smile In Different Cultures (TranslateMedia)

Why the Chinese don’t smile at strangers (China Mike)

Smile in Russia (Hofstede Insights)




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