Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Western happiness and "suffering soviets"

Tonight, husband is watching Transporter, with Jason Statham. Wants to know if I find the guy attractive. Well, he is stacked, and can kick a***.
But has no waist. So no, not really. I much prefer Clive Owen.

An expat I knew in Baku has recently moved to the States. Browsing his FB profile, I noticed photos of a new girlfriend and, curious, took a closer look. The girl was pretty and slim, with long hair and legs. All seemed in order, really. But something in her face bothered me. I could not figure it out straight away, but that something was very annoying.

I looked again. Here they are on top of a mountain. Here they are on a boat. Here they are sipping tea… And finally, it hit me. The girl had the most intense expression of happiness on her face. In every photo, she had the biggest, widest, most frantically enthusiastic smile accompanied by very wide eyes.

I wrote to our mutual friend, asking her if she noticed the same. Ah, my friend replied, you don’t get it. She is just American. Everyone there has to act overly-enthusiastic about everything at all times! Oh, an apple! How awesome! Oh, look, a train! Wow, that’s just great! Oh, look at that flower, that is gorgeous!! – kind of thing.

Mentally, I went through all the American friends of mine. Fortunately, none of them had such frantic intensity in their smiles. (I would just have to kill them if they had)

But it just got me thinking about this whole issue of portraying happiness and success in western cultures.

Husband claims that Soviets just love to suffer.

OK, I can see he has a point here. Should you ask some ex-Soviet how he or she is doing, don’t expect a short and happy “Fine”, or “Great”. Be prepared to listen about their mother’s and grandfather’s health problems, as well as what went wrong that morning. Culturally, it is quite okay to moan and complain back home. (Maybe, people there just have a lot more to complain about?)

But I say westerners are losing the ability to express their natural feelings.

Of course it is great to be happy! Everybody loves lucky, successful people. We think, maybe subconsciously, that their luck and happiness would rub off on us.

And it can really get you down being friends with someone who is constantly unhappy.
I knew a girl back home, who was always sad about something: a man, money, weather, politics…you name it. Every time I sat there for a couple of hours patiently listening to her, I felt like a Dementor was sucking all the happiness out of me. Unfortunately, at some point, I just had to get out.

So yes, we love happy people. And in turn, we would like to appear as happy and successful as possible.

And for every society, there are certain standards of that success:
A nice house. A family. Kids. Preferably two. Depending on your social group and the level of income- maybe three. Good jobs for husbands. Nice gardens for wives.

And if you fit in that perfect scenario- great.

But occasionally, I wonder: What if something nasty happens to me tomorrow? What if I get very ill, my husband dies or worse, runs away with an 18 year old, or we lose our house? And suddenly, I no longer fit into this perfect picture?

Would I keep getting invited to all these lovely garden parties and BBQ’s with other happy families? Or would some of my luckier friends start avoiding me, like I avoided that depressed, divorced Dementor (ex)friend of mine?

So yes, as a “suffering Soviet”, I guess I have my concerns with this necessity to appear happy and successful at all times. I am not suggesting being happy is not good. I am just saying: What’s wrong with natural emotions? One day you are happy, another day perhaps, a bit down or just tired, or annoyed with your partner? Or perhaps, your mother in law is driving you insane…That kind of stuff.
And I think it is great to have people around you who understand how you feel and not just expect a wide smile and “I am great, thank you” when they ask how you are. And who would be there for you no matter what happens.


  1. As an American traveling to Russia soon I am pretty sure everyone there is going to think I am a crazy cult member. HI, LET'S BE FRIENDS!! I'm happy to meet YOU!

  2. Those few Americans who are not overly enthusiastic are from New York or around, right? New Yorkers are notorious in the US of being "rude and not-friendly." Which probably explains a lot.

    Being ex-soviet, I fill perfectly fine with new yorkers - to me they are perfectly normal. I was not so OK in Colorado, where people are known to be "very friendly." Here, in Texas, where people are described as "very nice" - oh, well... my 6-year old asked me once - "mommie, why do they shrieck instead of talking?" loud is rude, isn't it?

  3. We just had a very similar conversation at home. I was accused of making it too obvious in front of our friends that i was unhappy. But that's just me. There is acouple we know that annoys me immensly - whenever you see them they act like they are on honeymoon even though on the way home they are killing each other. I was told this is called "being british". I'm fine then as i'm not. Love it by the way!

  4. I think the reason I noticed that girl's facial expression is because it was so extreme. :) As I said, I have a few good American friends, and they are pretty natural. :) I have no idea how it works. But it isn't just Americans I was trying to talk about. There are some Brits who are always OTT: tooooo excited and toooo happy...who knows what it is, but they drive me insane.

  5. It's probably "good manners." No dirty laundry around strangers--that kind of stuff. Americans have it, too--in fact, I learned it here.

    Yvetta, where in TX are you? We're moving to Houston this week, right when the notorious heat is raging. But I remind myself I was born in Baku, so should not take me too long adjusting to the high 90s.

  6. I guess it is OK to express your true and real feelings, as long as you don't disrespect anyone.
    At least I do so, and I don't force myself to appear to be happy when I'm not.

  7. Marianna, I am in Houston - for the next month or so anyway. We can meet and chat if you wish - I am also Baku born.

    Going back to about appearing "happy" - I have to correct myself - fortunately it does not apply to everyone in TX. I have met quite a few texans who do not bare teeth and shriek with excitement at any opportunity -well-mannered soft spoken Southern Belles and gentlemen. I guess/hope that the chronic "happy gone lucky" appearance is just a temp fashion thing here - like Hanna Montana, Reality TV, etc

  8. Hmm...Perhaps, I should start charging dating agency membership fees soon?
    Marina, I will send you Yvetta's email separately.
    Texas sounds like fun!

  9. Well at least u know where u are with me .....if i am pxxxed off u know about it , if i am happy then u will know about it ( its not often) ha ha ....but if both our husbands run off with 18 year olds at least they wont be mithering us for more children ....ha ha !!!! xx

  10. I will know, perhaps if you tell me who you are??? I am intrigued now.
    I have a feeling I know who it is, but you never know. :))

  11. I was on a corporate trip to NY last week and ran into a guy from Moscow. He took every opportunity to tell me how annoyed he was with our American colleagues for smiling all the time & being “fake” for that reason. I tried to explain to him that they are just being polite, but to no avail. Towards the end of the week I had enough of his bitching and just avoided him. I guess he didn’t think of me as an American. Fool. :):)

  12. I like many things about American culture, or perhaps western culture, and rather have a friendly and polite person assisting at the store, library or post office rather than our soviet sales assistants who always looked annoyed and made one feel obliged and uneasy. I also remember watching a videotape of a relative's wedding in Baku a few years after I left my home country, and I thought those people looked like they were at the funeral rather than wedding, with mournful and very serious facial expressions. Yet it bothers me too when the smile is fake and the impression of happiness a person is trying to convey is highly exagurated.

  13. B went around perfecting his fake smile before leaving Russia, and that was just to make it to the UK.

    In the end he had a lot more trouble with the word 'sorry'. ('But why _say_ it when you don't _mean_ it, for Bob's sake?').

    Actually, I was the one who got accused of being rude when we were first back in London. I had lost the art of the hopeful half smile and making polite small talk about the weather before getting down to business.

  14. Right after I commented on what are smiling American I’ve become (or so I thought anyway), I had a “Scary Azeri” moment myself. I was having lunch with ladies from work yesterday and we ran into a younger single colleague with her boyfriend. Now, in my defense, I heard mainly bad things about him & in closer inspection didn’t like him either. But I smiled and said hi and that was it. Later that afternoon the girl came over to my office and said that her boyfriend said that I was scary and intense and that he was afraid of me. I guess I only thought I was smiling in my head, but my face was saying something else. I knew that I have a hard time hiding when I don’t like someone, this is not news to me. But scaring people’s boyfriends is too much, don’t you think?

  15. Americans are trained to smile on demand - photos, perkiness, etc. So they don't use their eys (crows feet are the sign of a genuine smile as those muscles are hard to control). You can see this on American high school photos, news readers, etc.....

  16. Could it be that some cultures simply are happier than others? And the less happy ones therefore assume the expressed happiness is fake? The people in the news stories about the slums of India and refugee camps in Africa look a thousand times happier than anyone I've ever seen in Azerbaijan, any day.

  17. I think it is quite easy to tell when someone's smile is natural, and when it is a bit frenzied, don't you?

  18. Moonlight
    had a miserable day, a miserable week in fact. 2 very important things in my life did not realize. One was not my fault, second kind of was. But while İ am on the verge of braking down and plain wailing, İ thought it would be unfare on my friends, whom İ just met for coffee, to drain them emotionally and kept it in. putting a brave face, saying things like, well what can you do. it is important to take things with dignity, but not letting it to bottle up. İt is matter of where, when, with whom. İ admire how foreigners handle funerals.

    Ran to my bed and Sms-ed my sisters for hours, only they can understand. İ neeeed a hug:-(