It has been brought to my attention on several occasions by Bulgarians that I smile a lot. It’s something I am definitely going to have to work on because instinctively I smile to put myself and others at ease. Now this might not be a surprise to many of you since even in the U.S. I am perceived as an overly friendly, outgoing and cheerful person, but in Bulgaria this is a big cultural difference. At lunch today I was talking with 2 of my colleagues who are from Germany & Switzerland and this topic came up. It appears that in Bulgaria all foreigners are confronted with this concept, but Americans more so.
Americans culturally tend to smile not only to express their happiness, but also to mask their feelings or discomfort in a particular situation. We have this attitude that no one needs to know our problems because they are private. In a daily exchange if one person were to ask another how they were doing, the other would almost always reply “good” even if in fact they had the worst day ever. In Bulgaria this is not the case – a Bulgarian if asked how they were doing, would tell you if they felt like crap.
In the U.S. it is common to smile when passing by strangers who you exchange glances with. Its kind of like a silent way of telling someone to have a nice day or acknowledging one another. But in Bulgaria a stranger smiling at you is definitely not perceived in the same way. As my Bulgarian friend explained to me a smile would not be returned with another smile as is typical in the U.S., but instead it would cause a feeling of discontent towards the person smiling. She explained a Bulgarian would think to his/herself “Why is that person smiling at me and rubbing her happy life in my face?” So basically I have made a whole lot of Bulgarian strangers dislike me in my first 2 months here.
One of my Western European colleagues told us a story at lunch about a time she was having a meeting with a Bulgarian co-worker of ours. And during the discussion she smiled as to acknowledge what was being said and to show support. Our Bulgarian colleague’s immediate response to this smile was: “Why are you laughing at me?” Meanwhile, another Fulbrighter shared with me the other day that when shopping at a market with a Bulgarian friend she was told that for a moment she looked Bulgarian, because she wasn’t smiling.
In the U.S. we like to say smiles spread happiness – well I guess it doesn’t work the same way in Bulgaria.