What are you smiling at?

August 10, 2012 | By

By Tracy Mallette

This is National Smile Week, so I’m examining what it means to smile around the world. This probably sounds ridiculous, but you may want to read on before, say, heading off to that business meeting in Russia.

Businessman with bag over his headGranted, Russians are probably used to us Americans smiling willy-nilly like a bunch of lunatics, or worse, a bunch of deceitful lunatics, but that’s probably not the impression you want to make.

On the other hand, don’t even think of doing anything but smile when visiting the “Land of Smile”, Thailand, where smiling is appropriate for any circumstance.


You heard me.

So, here’s the grin-and-bare-your-teeth breakdown of a few countries. Remember these social differences when opening an international franchise or conducting other business overseas:

United States: The Land of the Free smiles a lot – even at strangers in passing. It’s polite to smile in greeting when you meet someone and in business, which seems insincere to some other countries. This is understandable considering fake smiles are dubbed the Pan-Am Smile, after the perfunctory smile that flight attendants gave all airline passengers.1

Russia: Smiling in Russia is reserved for things you’re genuinely happy about, and people you’re emotionally close with. During the early Soviet era:

The image of an insincere, insidious American smile was used in Soviet propaganda mainly to depict U.S. politicians, ‘warmongers’ A group of stern businesspeoplefrom the military-industrial complex and other ‘bourgeois capitalists,’ but it also applied to normal Americans, who, Soviets were told, use smiles to betray one another in business and personal relations.2

Japan: The Land of the Rising Sun is reserved about emotional expression, and the people often refer to the eyes rather than the mouth for emotional cues, according to social psychologist Masaki Yuki. This is evidenced in the use of American and Japanese emoticons. A LiveScience article states that:

When Yuki entered graduate school and began communicating with American scholars over e-mail, he was often confused by their use of emoticons such as smiley faces :) and sad faces, or :(.

‘It took some time before I finally understood that they were faces,’ he wrote in an e-mail. In Japan, emoticons tend to emphasize the eyes, such as the happy face (^_^) and the sad face (;_;). ‘After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles,’ he said.3

Thailand: Don’t lose your cool in this Kingdom, where the people smile for every situation.

Smiling Budai figurineThai people may be also difficult to read as they smile when they’re embarrassed, smile when they’re annoyed – smile in most situations!

Social relationships in Thailand are all about retaining a calm demeanour [sic] and discussing issues diplomatically. You should not that you will never get anything in Thailand by raising your voice. For instance, if your room reservation has evapourated [sic], if the hotel limo fails to pick you up, whatever the situation, you must stay calm, smile, and resolve matters in a soft-spoken voice. Letting your emotions control you is viewed as a sign of weakness.4

Keep these cultural conventions in mind when traveling for business or pleasure, or if you plan to start a franchise in another country.

Of course, there are smile differences in other countries as well, so we’d love for you to share more of them. What are other smile conventions we should know about? Do you have a travel experience to share?

1 Wikipedia entry on “Smile

2 Bohm, Michael. “Why Russians Don’t Smile”. The Moscow Times. 29 April 2011.

3 Wenner, Melinda. “Americans and Japanese Read Faces Differently”. LiveScience. 10 May 2007.

4 Debenham, Lucy. “Etiquette in Thailand”. Travel Etiquette. 30 July 2010.

Tracy Mallette is Marketing Coordinator for Franchise Solutions. Google+

About Tracy Mallette

Tracy Mallette is Marketing Coordinator for Franchise Solutions and can be found on Google+

Filed in: franchising

Comments are closed.