Learning how to smile in Azerbaijan
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
KNOWING when to smile can be a tricky business, as I discover in Baku, Azerbaijan. Polite service is part of the culture but, intriguingly, smiling is not.
In this former Soviet state, locals sometimes view smiling strangers as suspicious, which is a challenge for the hordes of international luxury brands flooding into this oil-rich metropolis on the Caspian Sea. At a reception on a frigid night amid the splendour of the swanky new Four Seasons Hotel Baku, I talk with the brand’s general managers from across the world.
The corporate line is that you can’t teach passion; the reality is very different. Many companies actually employ consultants to do just that — to teach their employees how to smile.
Peter Andersen, a professor at San Diego State University and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Body Language, counts 40 hotels among his clients. He explains that not all countries share the service-with-a-smile ethos that prevails in Australia and the US.
‘‘People smile less in the colder latitudes,’’ he explains. ‘‘It may have something to do with harsh climates where survival has always been a serious busi- ness. The same holds true for elevation: the higher up, the less people smile.’’
Taking up the theme with a few Four Seasons general managers, they confirm Anderson’s theories, confiding that it’s a challenge to encourage Eastern European staff to smile (smile frequency diminishes in Europe as you head east) and that communism’s lack of competition bleached former Soviet states of the need for good service. They say projecting warmth is the goal, whether employees are faking it or not.
Next day I arrange to meet a local guide, Balash, to drive to Sheki, a town he claims is home to the friendliest and funniest people in Azerbaijan. ‘‘They win at famous anecdotes festival in Belarus. Very funny.’’
As we climb into the Greater Caucasus mountains, I can’t help but feel that the combination of bitter cold, elevation and proximity to the Russian border mean the odds are firmly stacked against Sheki. Sure enough, our arrival is a stark contrast to the eager-toplease microcosm of the Four Seasons.
The city appears populated solely by men (who smile less than women, according to my research) occupied in solitary tasks (people rarely smile when alone). At the Palace of Shaki Khans, a large fibreglass dictionary immortalises the supposedly hilarious translations from local Sheki dialect to Azeri. I ask Balash what’s the funniest translation. Hepoints and doubles over with laughter. ‘‘In Azeri, we say aeroport. In Sheki they say aero-drome!’’
We repair to a restaurant for lunch and while Balash entertains the waiters, I study the sombre group of men playing dice in the street. Sheki humour might be hard to understand but smiling is not. It’s an utterly primitive expression of status. Even in martial arts, a fighter who smiles at the prematch stare-down is most likely to lose.
‘‘Lower-status people always smile more,’’ claims Andersen. ‘‘In hospitality, the purpose is to appear that employees are at your service. Guests have the power to choose when to smile.’’
On our return to Baku, we stop at a market ablaze with the colours of cherries and quinces. I approach a babushka at a fruit stand, my expression a culturally appropriate neutral. She smiles encouragingly, and every one of her teeth is capped with gold.