Invisibilia Season 2: Changing Social Norms Could Save Your Life When McDonald's came to the Soviet Union in 1990, it insisted that workers smile. That didn't come easy. But customers grew to like it — and workers did, too. What happens when you change a norm?
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Invisibilia Season 2: Changing Social Norms Could Save Your Life

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Invisibilia Season 2: Changing Social Norms Could Save Your Life

Invisibilia Season 2: Changing Social Norms Could Save Your Life

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The NPR program about human behavior, Invisibilia, returns this weekend with a new season. Invisibilia co-host Alix Spiegel has this story about opening the first McDonald's in Russia and the export of the American smile.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: In America, smiles are like air. They're all around us. You get them with your morning coffee. You get them with your lunch, which was really quite mystifying to Yuri Chekalin.

YURI CHEKALIN: In Russia, yeah, we don't smile at strangers.


SPIEGEL: Yuri grew up in Moscow during the 1970s when the Soviet Union was still a communist country, in many ways cut off from the rest of the world. So he didn't know a ton about America, but he knew Americans liked to smile.

CHEKALIN: You know, in school, we learned that American smile - that's not honest. That's just for show. There were, like, posters about those evil capitalists wearing top hats and smiling in that evil way.

SPIEGEL: See, in Russia at the time, smiling had a completely different meaning than it had in America. Smiling was a very personal, intimate thing.

CHEKALIN: When you see your family or when you see your friends, that is when you smile. You don't really smile to anybody outside of that.


CHEKALIN: When people smile all the time, it's kind of a bad character trait, like not willing to express your true feelings.

SPIEGEL: And so until he was 19, Yuri almost never smiled at strangers. And then came this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today, we are opening the first McDonald's in Moscow.

SPIEGEL: On January 31, 1990, McDonald's opened its first franchise in Moscow.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mcdonald's is world famous.

SPIEGEL: Now, at the time, and even until today, McDonald's was a major force in the mass production of cheerfulness. So clearly McDonald's needed its Russian employees to smile, which was a problem not just because Russians don't typically smile at strangers. There was something else.

Because the state-run economy created severe shortages, at the time, the relationship between customers and service providers, like cashiers or waiters, was basically the opposite of the relationship set up in America because if you have stuff in a world of scarcity, you have enormous power.

CHEKALIN: In the Soviet Union, when you walked into a restaurant, the first thing they would look at is your clothes. And then they would, you know, judge if they want you in this restaurant or if they just rather take break.

SPIEGEL: In fact, it was common to show up at a completely empty restaurant and be told by a lounging waiter they simply didn't have space.

CHEKALIN: Just chase you away.


SPIEGEL: According to Yuri, in the service industry rudeness was the norm, which brings us back to the Russian McDonald's. After hearing about it, Yuri applied, was accepted and one week later found himself sitting in a room filled with fellow Russians listening as McDonald's trainers carefully broke down the elements of American cheerfulness. For example, when you meet someone, you must make direct eye contact, which was completely weird to Yuri.

CHEKALIN: So in Russia, if somebody looks at us, we just kind of look the other way unless we about to fight.

SPIEGEL: They were then taught a series of phrases to say, phrases that heretofore none had ever heard uttered by actual Russians service workers.

CHEKALIN: Have a good day, come back soon, how can I help you?

SPIEGEL: Together in the training quarters above the store, they practiced this new language, ran through the words over and over.

CHEKALIN: Would you like anything else?

SPIEGEL: Yuri remembers wondering about all this smiling stuff. How would the customers respond?

CHEKALIN: Actually, they were really happy.

SPIEGEL: In fact, Yuri noticed the niceness seemed to change customer behavior as well.

CHEKALIN: A lot of Russian people walking into that McDonald's, they also acted differently. They were friendlier.

SPIEGEL: So do you think they were coming for the food or do you think they were coming for the different emotional culture?

CHEKALIN: I think emotional culture.

SPIEGEL: Whatever your view of McDonald's in America - and some people hate it and some people love it - in Russia in 1990, Yuri says the restaurant was a kind of island of light and humanity.

CHEKALIN: Everywhere else you go, it was just gloomy and there were troubles, stress. And you come to McDonald's and it's, you know, everybody's always happy, and you see smiles. You can stay there for as long as you want. Nobody's going to kick you out. And so it was just a great place to hang out. People really felt they could just relax and be themselves.


SPIEGEL: And did working in that emotional culture, did it alienate you from your own culture?

CHEKALIN: Sure, sure.

SPIEGEL: See, as his employment wore on, Yuri became a convert, a believer in the power of this particular American emotional norm to transform and elevate. But does it always elevate? How does the American service smile actually affect the people who practice it?

ALICIA GRANDEY: It's associated with health problems, with mistakes, making performance-based errors.

SPIEGEL: This is Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State who says if you look at the research on forced cheer, you do see some benefits to business, but there's also evidence of real health costs, both physical and psychological.

GRANDEY: It sets up a dynamic where customers are free to act however they want to the employee and the employee has to grin and take it. And so over time, that creates a feeling of dissonance, that feeling where your internal state is different than your external expressions or requirements and that feeling of, like, wow this is incongruent with how I really feel inside. Your having to hold that for extended periods of time, that takes a toll on the body.

SPIEGEL: Every year, something called the smiling report is published. It's a survey of customer service in countries all over the world. And in 2015, America was ranked 13; Russia - 15. Twenty-six years ago, the American smile went sailing across the ocean and there the American smile stayed. Alix Spiegel, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: There are lots more stories from Invisibilia in the weeks ahead. Find out more about this weekend's show at

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