Learn­ing how to smile in Azer­bai­jan

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Luxury - ADAM McCUL­LOCH

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.

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