BY MARIA TITIZIAN
You probably won’t come across many people smiling randomly in Yerevan. It is not the default facial expression in the country. To some it may even be a symptom of or a predisposition to pathological behavior. Others simply may not have much to smile about.
In 1862, neurologist Guillaume Duchenne identified the facial muscles that are utilized during spontaneous smiling or what is known as a genuine smile. When someone dons a fake smile or when people are simply smiling out of politeness, only the corners of their lips shift upward. The genuine smile, which involves not only the mouth but the crinkling of the eyes known as crow’s feet and a downturn of the outer points of the eyes thereby, has been coined the Duchenne smile.
This piece of relatively useless information has some relevance when it comes to Armenia-Diaspora relations, perceptions and misunderstandings. I hear many complaints about Armenia from Diaspora Armenians, some border on the absurd like the lack of toilets in remote touristic destinations, as if this is a top priority for those of us living here (yes, I know it’s good for tourism but we do have some other pressing issues to tackle first), to the lack of smiles on people’s faces. I doubt that there are any proven scientific grounds, but it is a generally known fact that people living in post-Soviet countries don’t smile much. During communist rule smiling was considered suspicious and a person smiling for no apparent reason was probably a fool.
In North America the smile culture is ubiquitous. You can’t escape it. Walk into any store or establishment and you will be greeted with a smile and a cheerful salutation. A few months ago, I was back in Canada visiting my family and everywhere I went I was greeted with jovial salespeople or waiters. My first reaction was, “Geez, why is she smiling so much?” or “Why is he so happy?” I then realized how much the non-smile culture had begun to influence my temperament and disposition.
That a simple thing such as a smile or lack thereof could warrant such distress is only one aspect of this larger cultural divide or disconnect between Armenia and the Diaspora.
While walking on a crowded sidewalk in Yerevan you may inadvertently bump into a passerby. If you turn back and say “Sorry” or “Excuse me” they might look at you funny. If they bump into you accidentally, they might look at you, they might not, but they will keep on walking without saying anything. Never mind a lack of an apology, often times walking is like a game of chicken or brinkmanship…a stranger will come barreling down the sidewalk right at you and won’t budge an inch to get out of your way but if you stand your ground, at the very last millisecond he or she will move just enough to graze only a shoulder or an elbow. It’s kind of like driving in the region. And for additional information for the unsuspecting tourist, when someone walks into an elevator, they most probably will not say “Hello!” or “Good morning” either. If you do, they will look at you funny.
Customer service is erratic at best throughout the city. Most establishments these days have pretty decent service but you’ll still come across the occasional cantankerous waiter who takes your order while looking off into the distance, a blank look on his face, ostensibly wondering how the hell he ended up having to “serve” other people. While the private sector is catching up with the world in terms of customer service, most civil servants in state institutions, offices and agencies are notoriously rude and impatient and it feels like they complicate simple processes just to make you slightly crazy, as if you weren’t that way to begin with.
This behavior is the norm in Armenia, yet again a remnant of Soviet influence when everyone subconsciously made sure not to stand out, to fit in, to stay within the confines of socially accepted norms of conduct for survival.
While non-verbal communication may not be refined in our country, we need to understand that they stem from historical experiences and cultural conditioning. While some local Armenians may not smile or say excuse me or can be less than polite, those visiting our country can sometimes be shrill and obnoxious, entitled and impatient with the slower pace of how things get done and almost always voice their opinions, rather loudly. Instead of pointing fingers amidst the misunderstanding, maybe we all need to take a step back and re-evaluate our first impressions.
More than anything, cultural differences underscore our problems with one another. And while there is some limited evidence to suggest that smiling, genuinely or otherwise, can impact your mood positively, the imperative to smile in North America is not de rigueur in Armenia. A friend, when asked why she didn’t smile at a particular person said, “Did she say something funny that I should have smiled?”
Next time you’re in Armenia and come across a non-smiling waiter, remember that he or she may have a degree in physics or history or be a gifted musician and is feeling shafted by the system here, as most people are. Additionally, waiters, drivers, almost anyone in the service sector is looked down upon by society here so the person serving you has been hit twice, first because they have been forced to take a job they feel is beneath them (and probably pays a lousy wage) and secondly because of negative societal perceptions about them.
Life is not easy anywhere anymore, even more so in our homeland. If our compatriots in the Diaspora, who often lead relatively privileged lives, were to take a moment to reflect on what has come to pass over the last quarter of a century to our people here, maybe they would understand the reasons for the lack of smiles and cheerfulness: the 1988 earthquake that decimated entire cities and villages, killing 25,000 people and wiping out the industrial complex of the country, the Karabakh movement, war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, independence, energy crises, blockades by two of our four neighbors, the cold and dark years, the complete collapse of public services and utilities, political, economic and social instability and uncertainty, injustice, corruption, impunity…Everything needs to be put into perspective, we’re all struggling, we’re all trying to raise our families and live a dignified life and if we don’t always smile, don’t hold it against us, be a little patient, we’re getting there slowly but surely.
Thanks Maria. Enjoyed your article very much. I had experienced and wondered about the smiling phenomena in Armenia. Also had similar experience more or less in Germany few years back.
Keep writing Maria. Love your articles.
Great article Maria. Thank you
This is a very thoughtful article, and worth pondering. As one who has lived seven years in the USSR and its successor states, and six in the former Warsaw Pact countries, I understand what Maria is saying. We all need to be a little bit patient and understanding.
THANK you for writing this piece. It’s quite necessary I believe.
This is a very interesting article and up to the point. I wish we in the diaspora can bring some smiles to the faces of our brothers and sisters in the homeland, though.
When i came to US and was working in the library i had a problem with smiling. It is difficult to smile and be cheerful all the time (it is called emotional labor as i read once) however, not smiling and being simply rude are 2 different things. Not smiling but envying, or trying to “fool” tourists is also different thing. And i know how hard the live in Armenia is, and that this behavior is “justifiable” but still it is simply sad.
Furthermore, i live in Soviet Union era, and i hate to say it, but in 70 Yerevan was one of the most cheerful and progressive places in all USSR – the center was full of young people walking talking smoking and they looked and acted much more “European” than now. And yes, it is sad that Armenian “culture” after independence went down.
I liked the article – it is very objective and truthful.
Well, with the percentage of depressed Americans taking psychiatric pills as they were candies…
No wonder they keep smiling while being robbed out of their comfortable middle class lives.
Still, I suggest anybody who think that this country wins the competition of most happy nations to ride in Washington, DC metro from 7am-8am and count smiles while trying to avoid collisions with rude disturbed stressed out people rushing to get to their well paying government jobs.
Yerevan, Washington, NY, any big city for that matter would have the same problem. On top of that you have these stupid tourists shlepping around with their stupid cameras and noisy unsupervised kids and smiling like they are in a circus or something.
One Russian immigrant summed it up very well when an American English teacher asked the class why they are not smiling like Americans – he said “I smile only when I mean it.”