MOLDOVA: Moldovans Don’t Smile… except they do

“You are not like an American,” said Arvy from Lithuania, “All Americans have fake smile. They smile all the time for no reason! You do not smile like that.”

He pulled the corners of his lips back into a smile that looked like a grimace – how he thinks Americans look when, as he says, “smile does not reach the eyes.”

One particular british girl didn’t believe Moldovans smiled. Of course, I live with a Moldovan family, and know that they show great warmth towards me and one another, so it’s not true. Yet, in public, they are reserved and even terse to strangers. Actually, barring one very early morning walking from the club with a girl friend, people generally did not say hello, and eye contact can be considered rude (awkward). People on the bus barely look at one another, though our bodies push together like sardines in a can. I had a rather strange experience where a buxom woman pressed her breasts, contained in a low-cut dress, against my bare arm as the bus lurched forward and tossed us about. Christ, you normally have to buy a girl a drink before you get that intimate with her…

My first week here, I took to being ignored quite well. I was left alone to explore a new city, to get my feet under me and to adjust without the pressure of constant social interactions – lacking a common language, that can be an incredibly exhausting thing.

Yet, the dreary thing with spending so much time with oneself is that you often forget how you appear to others.When I get the odd look, I remind myself that I look out of place!

My Polish friend, Arek, once told me that tattoos because they were often associated with – and I paraphrase – criminals and hooligans. I wonder what the Moldovians think when they see me – a girl of ambiguous ethnicity, tattoos on the shoulders and arms, and black combat boots that sharply contrast the favored flats and heels worn by the local women. I have seen one other Asian girl in the city, and she was from Britain. If we were a peculiar sight, I didn’t notice. No one looked at us.

If you never speak to a Moldovan, but simply people watch from a cafe, or the lounge of your hotel room, it is entirely possible that you will never see them smile. I thought quite the same thing, until I was lost and needed directions.

“Hello!” I said to the nearest passing man, “Пожалуйста, скажите мне, где автовокзал? ” Please, tell me where is the bus station?

He looked surprised. “Вы говорите  по-английски?” You speak English? 

“да! да!” Yes! Yes!

It turns out that he spoke English just fine, and he appreciated my attempts at Russian, commenting that many foreigners come and never try to speak the language. As for himself, he spoke Romanian, Russian and English, had lived in the village when he was young, but came to Chisinau later after studying economics at the university… in our walk, he had told me a lot about his life, politics, revolutions, and tried to give me a cultural lesson to explain the heart and soul of Chisinau.

He walked me to the nearest bus station, made sure that I got on the right bus, and even said a word or two to the trolleybus attendant, who then made sure I got off at the right street. So do they smile? Of course they do. This man was the very model of hospitality and kinds.

“When you always smile at people, the smile means nothing,” Arvy had said, “How can you trust it?”

I suppose that is right. We Americans are taught to smile – bling! Show them pearly whites! – at anything. We say hi to strangers on the street as we pass, we smile in conversation almost immediately, and if you don’t look friendly when you order over a fast food counter, you might get spit as an additional condiment.

I don’t know who has it right – does every person deserve a smile and friendliness, even if we aren’t particularly happy and aren’t friends at all? Or should we reserve our warmest expressions for when we actually feel it? Or is there a happy middle ground?

For me, I prefer the Eastern view – it increases the value of your kindness. It adds to the weight of your expressions and, in the end, is more honest. It’s best to leave the plastic smiles for the used car salesmen.


  1. Elena says:

    In Norway you don’t acknowledge people you don’t know or barley know on the street. Girls the same age or older women also gives each other bad looks. It is not considered rude to look people in the eye, but you avoid it because it is considered like an awkward thing to do. People are also usually rude about sharing spaces on the bus and when others hold the door open people rarely say thank you (this annoys me a great deal.) I don’t really like this though, it makes it harder to get to know people.

    When I was in Paris for 4 weeks I felt like I had a small culture shock because of all this. People look you in the eye and can often give you a small smile like an acknowledgement. If you are in a small space with another person you don’t know like an elevator, reception or waiting for something on the street people can start an conversation with you. It is like this is Spain as well and I love it. I like people to be more open and nice. They do seem genuine about it though, and they won’t strike up an conversation if they don’t have time or don’t feel like it. The only place that reminded me in Norway was the metro/train, where people don’t look at each other or speak. But most people still makes space for people in stead of putting their almost empty bag on the seat next to them and looking bothered when they have to move it (Norway..)

    Moldova sounds interesting though, different from the places that I’ve been. But I also like the idea of how you don’t have to smile all the time, because no smile is better than a fake smile. I’ve met some Americans though that I feel like are as the Moldovans described, always ready with a smile no matter how fake it is. I do not like this though, I would rather have someone tell you how they feel, ignore you if they want in stead of being fake nice all the time. You have to guess what they really are feeling. So I guess that is one of the good things about Norway. People are only nice when they want to and you are not obliged to be super happy if you don’t want to.

    1. Francis says:

      Elena! What an excellent comment. I might actually go to Norway later this year. And while it does make it harder to get to know people, sometimes it’s also nice to have your privacy respected as well. I do agree that in Spain and Paris it is different – and the small smile of acknowledgement is sometimes really nice. I’m actually about to go the park soon, and I am going to see if anyone strikes a conversation with me… On the other hand, I might even go out of my way to try to converse with someone in Russian (which I am learning). The issue, of course, is that I’m a bit shy.

      I do agree with you – honesty is always better. 🙂 Thanks for coming for a visit.

  2. Beautiful photos!

    I think it really all depends on the culture. I’ve spoken to people from other countries who have experienced both Americans and Canadians (who are also taught to smile, look you in the eye and be cheerful). For the most part, they’ve described many of the gestures from the Americans as forced; not necessarily meaning that they’re not being genuinely nice, but rather that their attitudes seemed to be one of being in such a rush to do whatever it was they were doing that the kindness seemed almost like an inconvenience.

    Personally, being from Canada, I see that in many Canadians too, mainly those from the cities. In the smaller towns, we’re friendly and smiley because it’s a small town. There’s no real danger in being kind to a stranger on the street, in the store or on the bus, and it just seems the norm.

    When I was in Guatemala, it seemed to depend on where you were. In the slums people were far friendlier than in the wealthier parts, unless they were drunks or somehow involved in the gangs. The poor down there LOVE to smile and show kindness to one another, and especially to strangers. What struck me the most is that the kindness they showed never came with expecting anything in return.

    I understand where the Moldovan’s are coming from, but I think I prefer the showing kindness regularly. There’s a reason those of the Russian nations, the Ukraine and even northern parts of Europe are considered cold, and I think it’s more that people aren’t able to see beyond their rough exterior.

    As far as who’s got it right? Who really knows. There are enough examples from either side of genuine kindness or overwhelming coldness behind the actions, that I think it’s best to leave it culturally based. There isn’t one right way to go about it, however people could do themselves a kindness taking their time to learn about those differences and what they mean, just as you have here.

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