Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Face Of Russia

A recent article written on Humintell’s blog, “Russians: A Natural Poker Face?”, caught my attention. Living in Russia gave me an invaluable hindsight on Russians, their culture and life style, and I am taking this opportunity to comment on the article.

Russians prefer to keep their emotions to themselves. They seek to be alike and unnoticed when they are in group and in public, which I believe communism has inflected by enforcing conformism. While Russians have great control over the display of their emotions, they are still experiencing emotions and they do display subtle and micro expressions. This greater control however does not result in a better understanding of emotions because Russians are repressing their emotions rather than dealing with them.
NOTE Repressing emotions can seriously hinder the emotional development of an individual, which could remain teenage-like in term of emotions during adulthood, or have an emotional breakdown at some point.
Research conducted by Dr. Paul Ekman has shown that Japanese tend to display less unpleasant reactions than Americans while watching an unpleasant film when they know they are being watched but the reactions of participants of both nationalities were similar when they were alone. It seems to me that Russians are similar, where they are expressionless in public but displaying their emotions when they are alone and with relatives.

I tend to agree with the statement that “Russians and Americans are bound to misread each other”. Russians are likely to be overwhelmed by the display of emotions of Americans whereas Americans are likely to be underwhelmed by the lack of display of emotions of Russians. The ability to read subtle and micro expressions can greatly help Americans to properly read the emotions experienced by Russians. Russians seem to have more difficulties to process emotions in general, possibly due to the fact that emotions are repressed in public. Understanding each other’s culture is still necessary to understand the reasons behind the displayed emotions.

Pessimism in Russia is real and for good reasons: the unfairness of a social and economical system, corruption, Russian literature and so forth. Americans tend to believe they are empowered by the ability to change their lives for the best whereas Russians tend to accept what life brings to them with feelings of lack of empowerment. I have encountered very few optimistic Russians and they seemed to be outcasts or out of the Russian character at the very least. Americans tend to focus their lives on happiness, which seems to be different in Russia.

Being optimistic does not guarantee happiness neither being pessimistic guarantees unhappiness. I believe both approach to life have advantages and disadvantages. Russians have an incredible ability to go through hard times because they are resilient. It is an admirable quality.

According to the article, Lyubomirsky said “You go to a dinner at a Russian home and the Russians seem happier – they’re drinking, singing, telling stories.” I don’t believe it is a sign that Russians are happier but rather a difference for which Russians are happier than Americans.

Life in Russia can be extremely frustrating, from the long waiting lines to the complexity of the bureaucracy. Russians in the workplace is an example where they can be particularly unhappy: I have witness moments where dozens of people were skipping workdays because they were sick. This is not something we see in North America. Unhappy people tend to be sick more often. But, be aware, Russians are people of great extremes: while some can be unhappy at work, others can be extremely passionate about their work.

Russians are indeed skillful at concealing their emotions but they do display subtle and micro expressions, like the rest of the planet. But, perhaps, they do qualify as a national poker face. :)

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