“Wipe that smirk off your face!” I can’t tell you how many times I heard that growing up, but I can tell you it was never good. What followed would vary from a stern look to a whack in the back of the head. Physical repercussions for smirking–or, worse yet, the threat of such repercussions–kept me in line most of the time.
I certainly wasn’t the only one in our Staten Island neighborhood acting out, but I differentiated myself from my peers through a pinch of the lips that implied a mixture of scorn, defiance, and ridicule to those around me.
Ridicule caused the most problems for me. As it turns out, people don’t like to be ridiculed, even in New York. Who knew? Certainly not me, which ought to tell you something about my “emotional intelligence” as they say in business school.
I am reminded of a woman who accused me, among other things, of being completely detached from my emotions. It took me some time to realize it was an insult and even longer to understand that she said it because I had detached from her.
Here’s the thing, and it applies even more so today than it did in my youth. I never smirked at anyone intentionally. That is, I never wanted to covey scorn, defiance, or ridicule. The smirk came naturally as part of my facial structure. I couldn’t have changed it any more than I could have filled the cleft in my chin. I couldn’t help it that my smile, unlike most of humanity, amounted to a close-mouthed, pinch-lipped pucker. It is a cross that I still bear.
Will no one step forward to defend a God-given trait that may be the most misunderstood and maligned in all of creation? If I were to ask this question for real, I would expect a response similar to the one I got when I told neighbors in my apartment building that I was moving to California and asked if anyone wanted my fondue pot. It was new, still in the box, but not even the French woman wanted it. She stared at the floor, apologizing and saying that she didn’t like cheese.
But I believe the smirk acts as a counter to superficiality. First, it protects the individual from the daily barrage of insincere smiles, greetings, and wishes exhorting us to “have a nice day.” Secondly, it contains the antidote to nasty comments, lazy thinking, and business jargon (see “At the End of the Day“). Third, it provides a way to respond diplomatically when people kick garbage your way.
The smirk also keeps people honest. And it exercises an important function in society through its ability to correct excess in areas like fashion, food, politics, and the stock market.
From this perspective, it is “abundantly clear,” as the professor once said, that the world urgently needs more smirking. In fact, they ought to pester people for smirk donations just as they do for O negative blood, which happens to be a sore spot with me.
A word of caution is in order, however. Smirking can land you in a heap of trouble, including the physical repercussions mentioned earlier. In other words, you can get clobbered for appearing to be condescending, contemptuous, or aloof. I ran into trouble twice this week although without being clobbered.
The first time occurred when someone tried to describe a Spanish sparkling wine to me and they thought I was making fun of their pronunciation just by the expression on my face. In reality, I had never heard of the wine before and had no such thing in mind. I actually was paying attention to what they were saying. The second time involved me trying to be funny. Let’s just say my comment was not received in the spirit in which it was given.
Thus, wit can take the verbal form of smirking but is more direct and riskier. No one knows exactly what you are thinking if you remain silent, but parting those lips and speaking can make things worse. Still, without the smirk we would all be vulnerable to superficiality and the therapeutic language so pervasive today. So, smirking just might save civilization.
Yeah, sure it will.