3 Things About Americans That Russians Just Don’t Understand

by Semechka on July 2, 2013

Cultural differences are weird. They color our world with diversity, and in the absence of tolerance, can ravage it completely. But for the most part, they’re all but harmless — if a little funny.

…Okay, a lot funny. Extremely funny.

yes, this image is as old as the Internet.

Cultural differences and generation gaps are the source of much heated debate in my immigrant mishpucha. For example, my babushka — bless her heart — simply cannot fathom why I would not want to spend the rest of my days living on Brighton Beach.

Nu Semechka, how could you possibly want to leave?” she’ll gasp between sips of chai. “Na Braitonye, you have everything you need. Beach, family, inexpensive produkti…I just don’t understand.”

Of course you don’t, Baba. And just as she is baffled by my clearly misguided lifestyle choices, I’ve noticed that many foreigners — old and young alike — have trouble grasping certain conventions of American life.

Here are just three examples of cultural differences I’ve noticed between my Russian and American kin:

1.) Smiling at Strangers

As a New Yorker, I can see why this phenomenon might be a little off-putting. Suburban folks have this habit of smiling at you for no reason when passing you on the street, like you did something deserving of their glee. You’re minding your own business, when all of a sudden:

holy pancakes that’s creepy.

OK, Paula Deen may be a more extreme example of the fake smile phenomenon, but you get my point. Let me tell you something, suburban America — if you smile at me on the street, I am inclined to believe that you are either a) flirting or b) plotting to kill me.

Russian people don’t do the smiling-at-strangers thing. In fact, many of them are irked by this American habit, and figure that by displaying their true unfiltered emotions, they spare everyone the burden of questioning their sincerity. In other words, if a Russian person doesn’t like you, or their job, or the myriad other external factors contributing to their immediate disgruntledness, they won’t hesitate to show it. Whereas if an American doesn’t like you, they’ll at least pretend to for the sake of making your existence more tolerable. Some might note that this is the foundation of good customer service.*

*Note that the concept of “customer service” remains absent from Brighton Beach.

I can’t tell you how many times my soul has been crushed by the cold harpy stare of a Russian woman. Is she actually pissed, or simply afflicted with Bitchy Resting Face Syndrome (see YouTube link)? It’s hard to say.

2.) Casual Dress

I’ve heard Russians claim that Americans don’t know how to dress. This may very well be true. I don’t really know how to dress, but then again, I would be hard-pressed to give a crap.

Americans don’t usually opt for flashiness if given a choice. Russian girls are much more partial to the microdresses, the makeup, the designer labels, and of course:

the heels.

Have you ever tried wearing these? If you are not a stripper, there is no reason for you to be wearing foot-daggers. They do not make you sexier. They just make it look like you’d have a very difficult time getting anywhere quickly.

And then, the Juicy suits. Are these still in vogue? I don’t even know:

“Yes, I wear full makeup in my track suit. Problem?”

Notice the strategic placement of text. The carelessly sexy expression. The subtle buttstamp.

And then for the extra-ambitious…

I don’t even.

3.) Not Marrying in Your Twenties

I’m pretty sure by this point my Babushka has woefully accepted that I do not plan on getting hitched anytime soon.

My parents and aunts and uncles were all married before they reached the age I am now, which to me is nothing short of horrifying.

Wikipedia tells me that in 2011, the average age of first marriage in the US was 28.9 for men and 30 for women. In Russia in 2004, the average ages for men and women were 26.1 and 23.3, respectively.

I’ve heard many explanations of this. Either that Americans in their twenties are overgrown children, or that marriage takes a back seat to career, or that Russians are more traditional or whatever. I don’t know. I just know that getting married before 25 freaks me out, and that my Babushka should stop trying to play matchmaker to my older sister.

We’re not in Anatevka anymore.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

kcmeesha July 2, 2013 at 11:06 am

if you don’t like people smiling at you, you won’t make it in a state like Kansas where I live. It’s all smiles and waves all the times. After 20+ years even I do that (but not as much). Also my kid is “Samantocka” :-)

Lastly, if the link goes through, enjoy the creepy collage I made few years ago.



The GSB July 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Ahaha this is amazing! The whole smiling Americans phenomenon is something that took me and my family years to accept when we moved here. Stoicism is where it’s at in Mother Russia, amirite? Other than the above 3 conundrums I would also add “obsessive sports spectatorship” (ie the American need to devour every minute of football, baseball, basketball, etc on TV, SportsCenter, radio, newspapers, and in the stadiums) but then again, I think every Russian has a family member who ardently watches futbol matches between teams that most Westerners have never heard of, so I guess that cultural divide might not be as vast as the rest of them. PS I am so glad that RA has a bunch of new posts up! You guys crack me up! :)


Michael July 2, 2013 at 10:57 pm

I asked my Soviet-block mother why Russians never have warm expressions when they meet new people and she quoted some Russian saying that went something like “Only the village idiot smiles all day”. I love my mom.


Frank Laurenzana July 3, 2013 at 9:56 am

I am not Russian.. I am American of Italian and about 6 other nationalities from Europe, with a little Cherokee Indian descent. An American mutt, if you will. I studied Russian in college, have Russian friends here in Florida. Studied Russian History.. I think one reason that makes Russian and Slavic culture in general so desirable and fascinating is the use of formal and informal language forms.. we dont do that in America.. everybody is a friend “Hiya Buddy” Wassup? no way to show another person how you feel about them subtly with the use of formal and informal language. I also admire the mental attitude that most of the Russian and Slavic people I know have towards life in general. It coincides with mine.. Not a happy fatalism, but a realistic quiet acceptance of things that you cannot change, and work out around them. I , as a person, have learned alot about life by studying Russian Culture and History. So glad we have so many Russian and Slavic immigrants mixing into the American stew pot.. you bring a lot of good things with you. Dos Vydanya! Frank Laurenzana


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