I first learned that smiling is not a universal language in a Russian Import shop in Sacramento, California. It was on the corner of an historic Main street that had its groove on for tourists, which my husband and I were.
Its proprietress wore clothes the hue of mud and the expression of impending storm. You’d have to move way beyond “grumpy” to describe it. Was she lonesome amid vivid Matryoshka dolls that perked on every surface? I paid her pretty dolls a compliment to engage her. NO response. Naturally I tried harder.
“Is there one here that is your favorite?” She neither spoke nor looked up from the wood counter she was studying. Maybe her frown was just too heavy to lift. I thought about touching a tiny doll or two, you know, admiring; but decided that would be a bad thing. I took my smile and got the heck out, wondering if glum was contagious.
Later, our son, who had lived for months in Russia, cleared things up. He said that Russians generally suspect grinning and gushy friendliness to strangers for no apparent reason. He suggested they considered it phony.
I have to admit they may have a point.