Letters from Abroad

Nobody Smiles & Everyone Hates You

Photo Courtesy Caroline Elkin ’15
Photo Courtesy Caroline Elkin ’15


In Moscow, we have “metro face:” the scowl one wears, well, everywhere, not just on the subway. You do not smile when you make eye contact. In fact, you try your hardest to look like your face has been frozen solid, to the point that your displeasure at life could smash through a six-inch crust of ice.

I’m exaggerating. One, it’s not really that cold here (especially compared to Dickinson lately). Secondly, I don’t think that Muscovites are the furious, frozen horde we’re sometimes led to expect.

Concerning facial expression, it’s true, nobody smiles on the street. Think about it: you live in a city of 15 million people, all of who are hurrying. If you nodded at everyone you bumped into at rush hour on the metro, you would look like a marionette. Once you get away from inherently unpleasant things like public transportation, humans in Moscow have facial expressions just like everyone else. Really! It’s true!

Last August, the absence of politeness shocked me. The easiest way to feel scrutinized in a restaurant is to say thank you for every service. Frankly–hard to say, because I’m the only one who lives here–it feels like I thank my host mom too often, that it’s bizarre to thank someone for putting food on your plate or telling you about a cool event if these are normal activities.

In the US, “thank you” is a response to, well, everything. In Russia, it seems like this, along with other little phrases, are saved for somewhat stronger gratitude. Does this indicate better priorities? Maybe.

It’s also true that this perceived absence of politeness…may be all in my head, in which case I’m happy to denounce myself. Based on extensive linguistic research (i.e. I contemplated it), I think we don’t pick up on politeness as well when speaking a foreign language. When asking questions in Russian, it’s very common to use a negative–you wouldn’t know where the Kremlin is? For me, this is just a formula, but I’ve gradually stopped asking “Where is the…?” because it seems too blunt. When I use that first phrase, I don’t think of it as a politeness, but I use it in the context of being more courteous.

Finally, on the subject of angry babushkas and guards. In the metro. On the street. In museums. In stores. Yes, like in the US, there exist people who make you feel like a worm for wanting to breathe their air. What constantly surprises me is the reminder that people everywhere want something to care about, something happy.

Take one late Thursday evening. I was heading back to the metro; it was about 5 degrees and windy. I passed a famous statue and noticed two guys filling a giant net with helium balloons. Watching, I saw a policeman approach. Great. They’re probably anti-Putin protesters, he’ll arrest them, better not tell the program director I watched…

He came over to me. “It’s really cold. You should wait in the metro.” For what? “It’s for a wedding, somebody ordered the balloons.” I was surprised they were allowed to do that downtown. “It’s so cold. But it’ll look great.”

Rules for survival: Don’t believe that everyone hates you and has no soul. Then go beyond that and believe that they too care about things, that they too are cold and don’t like traffic and noise. That, somewhere, there is a Russian cop who’s really excited about balloons.