Smile. Confuse a Latvian.

When I started writing this blog as a light-hearted look at some of my experiences here, I was, of course, aware that some Latvians might not agree with (or gasp, might not like) some of the topics I wrote about. However, of all the things I thought I might have to justify, I really never thought that I would end up spending half my weekend defending, wait for it, smiling.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a smile as a pleased, kind, or amused facial expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed. So, I hear you ask, who on earth could be offended by that? Well, the answer my friends, is Latvians. The prevailing opinion seems to be that British and Irish people are fake because we smile a lot. Personally, I like to believe that it’s just because we’re an friendly open bunch but to a Latvian person, this is clearly very sinister behaviour.

However, I believe smiling is a good thing. It relieves stress, costs nothing, takes but a moment of your time, cheers you up and if you smile at someone else, you’ll brighten up their day too. Numerous songs have been written about smiling – ‘Smile Like You Mean It’, ‘Smile (though your heart is aching)’ and ‘(Come up and see me) Make me Smile’ to name but a few.

The English language is also quite rich when it comes to ‘smile’ territory. You can smile, smirk, grin or beam; you can crack a smile, flash a smile, grin from ear to ear, come up smiling. Idioms about smiling include ‘grin and bear it’, ‘let your smile be your umbrella’ and ‘a smile a day keeps the Latvian away’. OK, so I made the last one up but you get the idea.

These days, it’s rare to get an email or a text without a smiley face. Winky smileys, confused smileys, shocked smileys and the ironic sad smileys pepper modern communication. It seems that we can’t fully convey what we mean in words alone. A little yellow smiley face, however, makes everything clear. So maybe there is something to this smiling lark after all.

In an effort to find out, I declare tomorrow ‘International Smile at a Latvian Day’. So whoever you are, wherever you live, if you know a Latvian, smile at them. I’ll be doing my bit in Riga. Rigans beware – I’ll be the weird foreigner beaming at you on the bus or smirking at you in the supermarket. I’m hoping I might even get a smile or two in return. Stranger things have happened, right? 😉

“When life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show life that you have a thousand reasons to smile.” (Unknown)

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About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
This entry was posted in Expat, Humor, Humour, Latvian people, Rudeness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Smile. Confuse a Latvian.

  1. paul says:

    hey hi…
    my name is paul….
    m from india…..
    m planning to start my MBA studies in latvia………
    can u help us in its PRO n CONS plz
    ur reply is highly awaited ………..

    thanks in advance………..

  2. Mikele says:

    Together with a friend if mine we have spent 4 days in Latvia, being Italian we ate very open , laud and smiling people.We noticed how serious the people were, and we had a great time by just say, hi, hello, ciao, smiling and make jokes to everyone..Sometimes we managed to make beautiful faces smile ..and a bit happier .

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  4. kathexpat says:

    Great post — so funny! You made me think of this quote from Dwight in The Office:

    “I never smile if I can help it. In primates, showing one’s teeth is a sign of weakness. When someone smiles at me all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.”

    Maybe this is how Latvians feel about smiling??

    • Expat Eye says:

      Now that’s funny!! Now the question is do I want to be a ‘fake Irish human’ or a ‘chimp in fear of its life’? This is one decision I never thought I’d have to make… 🙂

  5. Kaķis says:

    Maybe we should try smiling at 1st of April? 🙂 This is considered to be a day of jokes… and even we – Latvians tend to smile when joking. But of course we are not joking tooo often, I know it. 🙂

    P.S. Sorry for my English, I have forgotten it totally… 😦

  6. Kaķis says:

    Hi, Linda,

    Maybe you should choose any other day for International Smile at a Latvian Day, not 25th of March, because this day has been a very tragical for our nation.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hmm, you might be right. In my defence, I didn’t know until I walked past the Freedom Monument this afternoon. Maybe you can tell me a day that isn’t tragic for Latvians and I can reschedule for next year.

  7. John says:

    The Russians also say: “Пиво без водки – деньги на ветер ” (beer without vodka is throwing money to the wind) which partly explains why Russian men have average life expectancies which would make Ethiopia proud. I can get that Latvians don’t smile as a cultural thing but I could never understand why they had to make lame excuses for it, “English people’s smiles are fake”, “it’s because of the weather/economy”etc when none of that is true. I used to think it was a Soviet thing, but teaching in Kazakhstan, students and workers smile a lot more despite having equally crap winters and salaries.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Maybe the excuses are a cultural thing as well!?

      • Antuanete says:

        Sometimes I feel like I need to apologize in the name of all Latvians who make ridiculous excuses about our grumpiness, like terrible climate or low salaries, or Soviet past. Our climate is by far not the worst on planet, and there are millions of people living in extreme poverty, still smiling and being nice to visitors. So I guess the most appropriate explanation might be our traditional lifestyle in separate farmsteads, where extended families lived all by themselves, and met other people only by small numbers. It’s been a little more than century when majority of Latvian population is living either in villages, towns or few bigger cities, and maybe our genes are protesting against such crowds by trying to avoid unnecessary communication 🙂 (in fact, during Soviet times people were forced to leave their own houses and to settle in villages, because such individual farmsteads were considered as incompatible with Soviet ideology and also economically unprofitable, it left some kind of trauma too). In Latgale, Eastern Latvia, people traditionally have been living in villages, and they are considered to be more friendly and welcoming. But, as anyone will say to you, if you receive a smile from Latvian, then you really, really have earned this 🙂
        Btw, how was your “Smile a Latvian Day”? Did you get any smiles back?

      • Expat Eye says:

        Hmm, I got a grimace and a ‘labvakar’ from the lady in Rimi – that was as close as I got! Apart from my students who smile at me quite a lot. I hope they’re smiling in a nice way, not a sympathetic ‘what is this mad Irish woman on about?’ kind of way!! I guess maybe there is something nice about earning a smile!

  8. pollyheath says:

    As the Russians say, “смех без причины признак дурачины” (Smiling without a reason is the sign of a fool). Having grown up with American propaganda of always smilesmilesmile, this is a hard one for me.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Wow, the Russians are harsh! I’m not sure the Latvians actually have an expression for it! Maybe after a few years with you, they’ll all be smiling and saying ‘have a nice day’! I doubt it though 🙂

  9. Liga Krista says:

    As you know already by now – am a Latvian living outside Latvia and I love your blog! I think that only (with exceptions, of course) those Latvians, who have been or are expats themselves can truly understand what you mean 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      I’m starting to realise that! I think you have to live somewhere else to really see the difference! Thanks for the support and for mentioning me on your blog! 🙂

  10. jude says:

    hahaha O’Grady, maybe this is all you and nothing to do with the Latvians at all! You are crazy, smiling, non married lady! You must be feared and not seen fraternizing with the children, oh somebdoy think of the children! I’m literally doubled over laughing at the mo

  11. I think there’s a middle-way between the two extremes, i.e between a forced smile when you’re feeling crap and a once-every-millennium Latvian smile, lol.
    So, do your students never smile at you in class?? I’m imagining a really sullen scenario right now…

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha, no, most of my students are lovely! We usually have a laugh in class – once they get to know me a bit anyway! The thing I find strange though, is that you can meet a student on the street and most of them pretend they don’t know you! Despite having a chat and a laugh with you about an hour beforehand!

      • That is weird! Do you think perhaps some of them are short sighted…? Without my glasses on, I wouldn’t recognise my own mother, I tell you. Girls can be vain 😉

      • Expat Eye says:

        That would be an awful lot of short-sightedness in one small country!! Even the kids are the same. I used to teach two 11-year old girls – we’d play games, talk and laugh for 90 minutes. Then they’d blank me at the bus-stop after the lesson and sit as far from me as they possibly could on the bus!

      • Plenty of material for another post, methinks! Any idea why this is? Something to do with your position as a teacher…?

      • Expat Eye says:

        I don’t know! Maybe a Latvian can explain it…

      • Lita says:

        I would say it is most probably due to your being a teacher. No matter how friendly you are you are still a teacher for those kids. I guess they think you don’t want to spend anymore time with them (esp. if it’s your free time now) – it’s like – why would you, your work is done.. for both sides.

      • Expat Eye says:

        I guess that makes sense! It’s probably a good thing really. Irish kids would probably chat to you the whole way into town!

      • Nerius says:

        As weird as that may sound there’s a lot going on in our Baltic cultures about the concept of “inconveniencing someone”. We were taught when we were children not to get in the way, not to annoy, not to inconvenience someone. People will go to extreme lengths to respect one’s time and private space. That’s the best way I could explain it. Otherwise we’re (some of us at least) a chatty little bunch!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Having been teaching kids for the last 5 weeks, there’s a lot to be said for them being seen and not heard!! Thanks for the comment! Linda

    • Lita says:

      Seems that our actions sometimes do make sense, right? 😀
      Anyway if there are situations/ times when you really don’t understand our ways to do things or if you feel weird about being a foreigner in Latvia, you are very welcome to ask me about it as I can be way too typical sometimes – I don’t smile as often as I should, I try to avoid any contacts with strangers on the street, I cannot live a week without rye bread and curd and so on and so forth.. 😀

      • Expat Eye says:

        I didn’t even really know curd existed until I came to Latvia. It was just something in a Nursery Rhyme – Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet (don’t know what a tuffet is either), eating her curds and whey (also not sure what whey is). But I now know for sure that curds exist! My ‘Smiling at Latvians’ experiment is not going very well – no smiles back so far!

      • Lita says:

        Haha, no wonder! To tell you the truth, I read this post on morning and on my way to the sports club I was smiling all the time just to see how my face (you know, the pain of smiling and so) and others react. I enjoyed it actually 😀
        By the way, it really seems that you should take a real thorough tour of Latvian culture (cuisine, among all) and traditions with a real Latvian behind you to point out some pretty awesome things you can find/ feel here.

      • Expat Eye says:

        You’re probably right! I had my first proper Latvian Ligo last year which was an experience and a half! Will start getting out and about a bit more when Spring finally hits – and when I have more than 5 lats in my wallet – I don’t know which will happen first 🙂

  12. NotSoTypicalLatvian says:

    I’m a latvian and I LOVE your blog. It makes me laugh every time and guess what? I totally agree with you! I live outside the country for 7 years and not planning to come back mostly because I fear feeling like an alien who smiles and says things like “hello, thank you and excuse me”! Keep up the good writing:)

  13. Ilzele says:

    I’m Latvian and find your blog hilarious 😉 And, speaking of smiling, as I lived in Riga one of my favorite things to do whenever I had a good mood was walking around smiling and making passers-by smile back at me. Easy to achieve on a sunny spring afternoon, pretty hard on a bleak cold winter evening.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hmm, maybe I timed ‘International Smile at a Latvian Day’ badly! I should have waited until the weather improves a little! But I guess a smile on a freezing day is worth more – maybe?! I love that you walked around forcing people to smile back at you – classic!

  14. Pecora Nera says:

    One for you. 🙂

  15. jude says:

    you troublemaker, you!

  16. 1WriteWay says:

    Good luck with your ‘International Smile at a Latvian Day’! No, really, I hope you at least have fun even if you don’t get any smiles back. 🙂 🙂 🙂

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