To strangers to American culture, Americans’ smiles can be unnerving. “Is there something on my face?” “Did she know something I missed?” “It’s so inappropriate for him to smile at me.” According to some Russians, for the longest time, American’s smile was a symbol of the evil American capitalism. Non-verbal communication is just as much of a socially constructed phenomenon as verbal communication. Cultural shock is akin to bacteria invading our bodies, annoying, inconvenient, and we just want to find some drugs to zap them away. We rarely see cultural adjustment as a challenge to our emotional well-being.
The second story of the Invisibilia focused on changing one aspect of a national culture, Russian specifically. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Moscow January of 1990, it was a huge deal. Not only the symbol of capitalism invading a former communist country, the Russian employees of McDonald’s continued the Big Mac’s culture of smiles in their greetings and services. However, it was the totality of the “customer service,” a la American/Western/Capitalistic ways, that tested the uninitiated and curious Russians. From “Hi, how are you?” “What can I get for you?” to “Is there anything else?” and “Hope to see you soon,” it was the complete opposite of what Russians usually experienced in their own restaurants where servers were surly, rude, slow, very slow, and sometimes downright nasty.
How did the average Russian customers react to their own fellow countrymens’ Americanized behavior, at least inside McDonald’s? Would they be suspicious of such unwanted friendliness? Not just smiling, but eye contacting and “faked” chumminess? Guess what people of all cultures would prefer? To be treated kindly…with or without smiles. The featured Russian in the radio story, Yuri, considered the question whether Russians going to McDonald’s are for food or emotional culture, and his response was, “I think emotional culture. People – some people liked food – some people were kinda, like, eh, food is OK. But, you know, it’s really a great place to just hang out.” Contrary to American’s perception of the uniformed soulless fast-food corporate culture, Russians saw McDonald’s an “island of light and humanity.” Socially constructed reality!
Such attitudinal change in Yuri and his co-workers took hold of their psyche over time, and some of them began feeling impatient with general Russians’ old ways of taking everything so seriously. In fact, two years after Yuri’s foray into the world of Big Mac, he and his family immigrated into the US, and settled down in Boston. Yuri had a honeymoon period in the States. Then, one day while waiting for bus, a fellow rider struck a conversation with Yuri, and they had a great back-and-forth on some personal stuff. Yuri saw a budding friendship and was delighted. The bus came; his “new friend” boarded after Yuri and sat away from Yuri, like all those talking points had just evaporated into thin air. Yuri concluded, “And I still remember that feeling. I was, like, I thought you were my friend. That’s really strange.”
Of course, you know by now that very few things in social science/social world are absolute. So it is with smiling, it can get carried away in customer service. Many American workers who are on the frontline dealing with customers feel burnt out after a prolonged period of smiling too much, a disguise for suppressed frustration. The forced smile has also created the expectation on the customers’ side to think they are always right and can become wholly unreasonable. So, there is a dark side of “keeping up with the smile!”
I remember vividly my first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1985. The country had barely opened its doors to outsiders. Almost everything was still state operated with zero concept of “customers;” the few mom-and-pop shops were accustomed to not seeing too many happy customers. Everyone seemed dour and impatient. The only friendly people were your relatives, connections with your relatives, or small merchants who’d like to take a little bit of advantage of you if they could. My western style combined with impeccable Chinese often unnerved the strangers, and if I could be quick, I could enjoy a little break of getting what I needed while they were recovering from being caught off guard. My second visit two years later saw dramatic changes across a large swath of the country, and by my last visit in 1991, Shanghai was on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan center. By then, my reaction to seeing the smiling Chinese wait staff was, “They are just being obsequious.” I haven’t been back since and have no idea of how people have changed.
Globalization has upended many carts, such as customer services, labor forces, attitudes toward “strangers,” or cultural habits. My take on of the two stories presented in the Invisibilia episode is this: Top-down changes are achievable in a small group and when the leaders practice what they preach. This was the case of the oil rig, presented in the previous post. The McDonald’s case was initiated from the top HQ down to one Moscow store, but it eventually caught fire as more McDonald’s opened up throughout Russia. More than two decades later, Russians’ smile score was higher than Americans’ in the 2015 “Smiling Report.” Yet, when it comes down to individuals living cross-culturally, such as in Yuri’s case, there is still much internal struggle and negotiation with the external world.
After being in the States for 40+ years, and happy like a fish back in the water, I still occasionally experience a cultural shift and puzzlement. Actually, such a feeling of disquiet occurs to many people when they move from one region to another, e.g. east coast to west coast, or north to south, and vice versa. Sometimes, English-speaking people moving from one country to another English-speaking country, say, US to UK, or UK to Australia, etc. experience even stronger cultural shock precisely because the changes may be subtle and easily taken for granted.
There are no magic medicines or programs to help us overcome the cross-cultural malaise. However, like all emotional issues, we need to take time to understand, really and deeply understand, not just our cultural environment but how we fit in that environment. It’s stop-and-go; it’s constant; it can be tiring and exhilarating; it’s personal, individualistic and collective. And it can be rewarding whenever we “get” it. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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