Peter Takes on History
January 31, 1990
Russian are taught to flip burgers, drop fries and smile!
OK, I find this sad. In Russia there is a saying “Smiling without reason is a sign of idiocy.”
That attitude was a problem for an American company when it opened its first location on a very exclusive piece of real estate in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. On January 31st, 1990 the biggest McDonald’s in the world opened. And Ronald needed all twenty-eight cash registers and 700 seats on that first day.
Five-thousand Russians waited in line for the doors to open. The store served thirty thousand customers that day, setting a McDonald’s record.
The McFrenzy was blamed on the fact that a lot of Russians were interested in seeing both American burgers and American capitalism up close. Another attraction, as one journalist put it, the “simple sight of polite shop workers…in this nation of commercial boorishness.” A customer said, “Everywhere else you go it was just gloomy and dark and dirty and there were troubles, stress, and you come to McDonalds and it's — everybody's always happy and you see smiles,”
See, whether people are willing to give them or not, people sure like getting them!
So new McDonald's employees in Russia had to learn to flip burgers, drop fries and smile. This “consumer experience transformation” was so revolutionary it was debated on Russian talk shows. One exchange ended, “Better to have insincere American smiles than our very sincere Soviet rudeness!” A Russian trainer described her job as “teaching people to … have a positive outlook” — the thousand years of famine, invasion and misfortune that shaped the Russian mind-set notwithstanding.
So, fast forward to 2017, McDonald's had nearly 500 locations in Russia. They were one of the largest corporate landowners and controlled 70% of the Russian fast food market. Now McDonald's made the decision to exit Russia in March 2022 following Putin's invasion of Ukraine. But they left one thing behind. The McDonalds smile! Russians have realized that polite employees boost sales and attract clients. According to a 2016 Smiling Report … yes that’s a thing … Russia ranked 10th worldwide with 90% of retail workers smiling. American, the people who invented smiling, are ranked 19th! Try to grasp that. Of smiley countries, we are barely in the top twenty; out-smiled by the Russians!
But I did find something to smile about, we’re kicking Russian butt in other rankings. According to a British Think Tank’s Prosperity Index, Russia languishes in 111th place when it comes to personal freedoms. The U.S. ranks 21st in personal freedom worldwide. OK, not top twenty but, honestly, would you like to live in some country where people have more personal freedom than the US? Would you really want it to be Spring Break all the time?
Many cite Putin’s crackdown on freedoms (and rivals) for Russia’s poor showing in the personal freedom race. Free speech, public and private, can get you in trouble. That would explain why this quip remains popular in Moscow.
Question: How does every Russian joke start?
Answer: By looking over your shoulder.