Expat Confusion: To Smile, or Not to Smile

Be Careful in Armenia

by Miss Footloose

Do you like to smile? Well, be serious for a moment!

Armenian Statue

To Smile or not to smile? Tatik-papik: Armenian statue.

I’m sure you know that if you’re a globetrotter or an expat you invariably come across baffling habits or customs in foreign countries. And sometimes notions and ideas you’ve taken for granted as gospel truth in your own culture are suddenly brought into question. Like smiling. Smiling is nice, don’t you agree? It’s cheap. It’s easy. People like it.

Well, no, sometimes they don’t.

To smile or not to smile

Armenian grannies: To smile or not to smile?

For six years I lived in the beautiful country of Armenia, tucked away in the Caucuses Mountains, and this is what I wrote at the time about the dangers of smiling:

Smile at Your Own Risk

I never thought much about the act of smiling — to smile or not to smile — I just sort of do it. It comes naturally, without contemplation. But here in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, you’d better think about it. Smiling here is serious business. Just walk the streets and you’ll see what I mean. What a grim, somber lot they are. People will look at you, scrutinize your clothes, but not make eye-contact. This is not because they don’t like your coat, but because you are a stranger and probably a bad one (and actually, no, they don’t like your coat). With ‘stranger’ I do not mean ‘foreigner’ only. I mean stranger as in unknown-person-not-belonging-to-my-clan.

As you live and learn in this country (expat confusion galore), you become familiar with certain signs that you are accepted, that you belong, that people like you. This is when they start tacking the word jahn onto your name when they address you. My Armenian friends call me Karen-jahn. Fortunately, I’ve been able to make some. And what’s true about Armenians, once you’ve been accepted, you’re a friend for life. They’ll give you a kidney of you need one.

Armenian smile

My best Armenian friend


Should I take serotonin supplements?

In the last couple of years here in Armenia I have adapted my street behavior and do what the locals do, which mostly means you ignore everybody. I do not make eye contact when I step outside my gate. I do not smile. I’m turning into a somber person. I can feel my serotonin drying up by the minute. This is depressing. Is there no way out of this?

Expat confusion

What to do? I know as a guest in Armenia I should adapt and adjust, but really, should I sacrifice my precious serotonin? No!

So I make a decision:

From now on I am going to try and smile more at people, whether they like it or not. Just because everyone runs around with a gravedigger’s face doesn’t mean I have to do it. So there. I have a mission. I will change the atmosphere, show them how it’s done, add kindness and friendliness to the ambiance. Good cheer and bonhomie will rush through the streets. Everybody will be happy.

I get my chance!

About a week after I make my new resolution I leave the house to buy eggs (dzoo) at the corner store. I go out the gate into the street and find that just to the right of our gate a woman is standing, waiting for something or somebody. A woman of post-menopausal sturdiness, she is very properly dressed, neat as a pin in a 1980’s vintage suit. Every hair in place, shoes polished, handbag in her hand, scowling into space, ignoring me.

She’s right there as I close the gate, impossible not to see, and I have to pass right by her to go to the shop to buy the dzoo.

I do not know her and I’m supposed to walk by her as if she’s nothing but air. That’s how it’s done. However, I’m now on a quest to inject more smiles into the environment and I do what comes naturally: I smile at her to acknowledge her presence, her humanbeingness, her right to exist in the world.

“Barev dzez,” I say nicely, looking right into her eyes for an instant as I tell her hello.

This happens:

She stares at me coldly, does not respond, and then, with a look of icy disdain, glances up to examine my hair, then down the length of my body to my (unpolished) shoes, then back up again. Without making eye contact, she turns her head sideways away from my face, pursing her lips in contempt and disapproval.

It is a magnificent display of rejection.

Fortunately . . .

I’m blessed with a huge ego coated with Teflon/Tefal. Were this not the case, I surely would have shriveled like a ripe grape in the sun under her withering gaze.

Shriveled Grapes

Shriveled by Armenian glares

Photo by Holger Schué

There’s nothing to do but call up my sense of humor and continue my shopping errand. I leave behind the disapproving matron, smiling as I go. Smiling at nobody. So there.

Another opportunity!

We’re going shopping. I open the gate so my man can drive out the car. I see a family walking down the street and about to pass our gate, so I hold up my hand to make my husband stop and wait in the driveway. There’s a mom, a dad, and two small, cute kids. Making up the rear is what looks like grandma. The kids are happy, skipping and laughing and goofing off, as kids do. As they pass me, I look at them and then make eye contact with grandma. I smile at her, acknowledging my enjoyment of seeing her adorable grand kids, and of course, to simply be a friendly neighbor.

She gives me a death stare. I kid you not.

Armenian Statue

How dare you smile at me! Statue in Yerevan

To smile or not to smile

“You have to be careful with men, Karen-jahn,” my friend Ruzan tells me over lunch one day. “If a woman makes eye contact with a man and smiles, it means something.” She gives me a meaningful look. Yes, I get it.

“If you smile at a woman you don’t know, she will think you want to be her best friend, that you expect to be invited for coffee, be given things. Smiling means something here.”

“Smiling means something in the West too,” I say, feeling a little wounded. “It’s a nicety, a recognition of the other person’s existence, a way to just wish him or her well.”

“Yes,” Ruzan acknowledges, “but here, smiling is only for family and friends, for people you trust.”

For people of your own clan. Armenians, I’ve learned, are very family-oriented. Families are extremely tight-knit and protective of their members. The world outside the immediate family circle is regarded with suspicion. This distrust probably has its roots in ancient tribal life (Mongols and Persians came raping and pillaging) as well as in the Soviet-era social climate (what if the neighbors told on you? What if they shipped you off to Siberia?) And now this distrust is also planted in contemporary life. Because why?

Because it’s a jungle out there

In this new capitalist world you’d better protect what you have because somehow or other the other guy will screw you blind. So whatever few smiles you may have, baby, keep them for those nearest and dearest.

“How sad this is,” I say. “Smiling is such a simple, nice thing. And it’s good for you, you know. It raises your serotonin levels, it increases your endorphins. Where I come from it just makes everyone feel better.”

Ruzan sighs. “I know that, Karen-jahn. I’ve been to America and I understand it. I like it now.” She stares down in the mud in the bottom of her coffee cup. “But, you know, here, it’s different.”

So…to smile or not to smile?

I decide I’m just going to continue with my mission and keep smiling whenever I have an opportunity. And would you believe, in the years that follow we see a change for the better in the Armenian smiling deficit. I don’t want to take credit for this all by myself, though, being a humble person. What happens is that life gets better in general. More foreigners come to Armenia bringing smiles, more diaspora Armenians from America and Europe come bringing smiles. So the locals begin to return your smile a little easier and more often — in hotels and restaurants and shops. However, in the street you’re still smiling at your own risk. To smile or not to smile, you’d better think about it.

And don’t you worry about me: I’m careful about smiling at men.

* * *
What surprised you when you visited or lived in another country? What fun, weird, or interesting habits or customs did you have to deal with or get used to? Don’t be shy, tell me your tales.

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Thank you for this post.
I’m traveling in Armenia and really like the place apart from the lack of eyecontact and no smiles.


nope, sounds to me like you have single handedly changed an entire country! woohoo to you, i always knew smiles could be powerful!

I miss Bali.
Literally everyone gives you their best smile. To be back in Europe, where people growl at you for crossing their path is a cold experience compared to that….

“Jahn”… In Iran they do this with the word “jun”. My friend Mahnaz says it basically means “dear”.

I’d have to say the thing that was the most startling was in Ethiopia if you are eating a meal and are the guest of honor, often the host will feed you… from his hand to your mouth. This was very hard for me because I don’t even like to do this with my DH!!


You’ve been making me smile for years.

Ooh, I think that scowling matron might have moved into this neighborhood; I’ve wasted a lot of really good smiles on her. Fortunately, most Turks and Turkish Cypriots in our neighborhood are proficient smilers. I need all the endorphins and serotonin I can get too.

I could not smile at the indian men either. And I had to walk two steps behind my husband with my head down…very difficult!

I would be so screwed, I love to connect and smile at people…

This reminds me of a story from when we lived in Mauritania. There was a man who’d often pass our door, a man with a long beard, and he’d scowl at us. Once Donn greeted him with a big smile and his entire face changed! He smiled back, greeted us, and from then on was our friend. (Our friend who wanted us to support him in the manner to which he hoped to become accustomed, but our friend nonetheless 🙂 Here in Morocco, I can smile and greet the women on the street, and after a moment’s startled reaction, they… Read more »


When in Rome…

The frustration is that it’s counter-intuitive for us. Yet, it is a defense mechanism in that world.

Gosh, what surprised me? I don’t think I’ve traveled to enough exotic locations personally to really have anything to offer up from my own stories. I’m not the most adventurous traveler, so I tend to go to countries …where a lot of other U.S. citizens go, basically. Highly Westernized places. The stories that have surprised me the most the world over have generally come out of various regions of Africa. I remember a friend telling me about a Shaman spitting into the dirt in front of her, and later she was told this was considered a blessing, of sorts. That… Read more »

Dear Ms. Footloose, You make me smile. What a great way to start the day, even reading your statement is refreshing.

Coming from a country where people take their coffee and tea breaks seriously (coffee between breakfast and lunch, coffee after lunch or dinner, never during, tea between lunch and dinner at 6 p.m.) and where you take those refreshments sitting down, it was startling to notice the new coffee culture in the U.S. brought along followers who enjoyed the foam haloed beverages —on the run.

@ Heather, smiles are powerful, just not always in the way you expect 😉 @ Biance Fieret, Ah, yes, Bali! One of my most favorite places in the world. Maybe THE most favorite. If it weren’t so far away from Europe and Eastern US I’d go live there! Lovely people. @ Teri, yes, they do that all over that region, also in India, I believe. And yes, it is an endearment like “dear.” I love learning things like that! @ Teri, oh, this is interesting! And no, I would not like to be fed by someone else’s hand unless I… Read more »

Curious to read about the “Charades” you’ll perform for wine (the chicken and the egg was hilarious).

@ Planetnomad: Your bearded guy made me laugh. You never know what smiling might get you in other countries. And as a woman smiling or even looking at men can be bad business for sure. @ Lakeviewer, talk about counter-intuititive: In Bulgaria nodding means no and shaking your head means yes. @ Shimp: I liked your shaman story! You never know what you might encounter — some creepy stuff indeed! I love learning things about other countries and cultures, even if I haven’t been there. It’s just such a fun world! @ Judith van Praag: I am happy I made… Read more »

Great post, Miss Footloose – don’t let them change you! Some of my female neighbors in Turkey look quite like your Armenian grannies. I’ve managed after all these years to get them to smile back at me when I pass, though one always asks me to give her my shoes!

And we add “can” (said jan) to the end of names too – but not with everyone…!

could you believe, I was born in Armenia, and lived almost all my life here!!? but often I feel a sheer stranger, having to suppress my smile here and there..
when I am abroad I am absolutely another person: happier, smarter and more beautiful

@ bazaarbayar: Maybe you souldgive her your shoes? Does she need them? 😉

@ game, keep smiling! Armenia needs you!

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