In Defense of Smirking

“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 wasn’t the only one in our Staten Island neighborhood acting out, although 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 is 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. You can get clobbered for appearing 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.

Feature image by Jeremy Bishop; middle by Rene Asmussen; bottom by Colton Sturgeon. Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo and Laura Fedora) as well as the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. Robert, I was given the following poster at my commitment ceremony:
    “Joseph found his life in ordinary days- No clutter of ifs or buts, simply, in what we call now.”

  2. I really enjoyed Bernie’s comments and your responses. I was just asked to do a Spanish translation of the founding document of a fairly new community of Sisters in Ohio. The community is the Sisters of the Children of Mary. Their founding statement reminded me of your dialogue: “Jesus promised his followers three things: to be utterly fearless, to be absurdly happy, and to be constantly in trouble. I don’t know about the first two, but I can testify to the third:)

    1. Now that would be something to think about: Mary’s sense of humor. What kind of mother was she? What kind of parents were she and Joseph? And what about Joseph, who is forever known as “husband of Mary”?

      If getting in trouble comes easy, then think about the kind of person you have to be to keep it up over a lifetime: utterly fearless and absurdly happy. Otherwise, you’d never make it…

      1. Regarding Joseph: Yes, “What about Joseph?” I began to think about Joseph , more seriously, during the formation period required for my commitment to formal association with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis Province. Another dreamer named Joseph, but it was all about how Joseph spent his life, his choices to care and support others, Yes?

        1. I don’t think he thought about care and support. Mission, maybe. The guy had to be on a mission to protect both Mary and Jesus. He had to have a clear, obsessive vision of that. Schmucks need not apply. Know what I mean?

          1. Yes. I guess I was thinking about Joseph, and the choices that he made in his life, and those arising in our own lives… I wondered if Joseph pondered all that had occurred, and his perspective on Mary, Jesus, his neighbors, and the events happening in his times. Joseph, what did you see and understand? Thank you, Robert. But, yes, a mission arrived with an opportunity to respond… Life arising in time, mind, and heart.

  3. Salami Salami Baloney. Im sitting in my apartment hysterical with laughter reading your piece of work. Its absolutely something out of Andy Rooney. Will Rogers even You are dangerous Rob the guise of a scribe. You proverbial come under the cameflouge of. The Sandy Becker Professor with Pomp and Circumstance with a buzzer in your hand or a gagged water spraying out of the flower in your lapel. I concede your heiness. Long Live the King he he he he. Long live the King.

      1. To the previious comments from above.. I must only say to you.. Dash Riprock! The rest will follow.
        To Robert Brancatelli.. 2 things that iniated with thoughts in mind after all these years. I am a ROMAN Catholic not just Catholic, and. A lone Republican in a sea of Democrats. Im talking bigger than the Dead Sea or The Caspian bro. You have always been cool to me.

  4. Thank you Robert. I will definitely be on the lookout for smirks. After reading your post, I ran through the faces, in my present and past, to see missed smirks, and what they all meant:) You know, it was interesting, Robert. I learned that I had missed noticing smirks, and probably, many other more subtle facial expressions. I tend to watch the eyes and listen to the voice of a person communicating with me. You can be sure I will now be watching!

    1. Susan, I think you are right about the eyes and the voice, but, oddly enough, the lips can be telling, too, especially smirks. But be careful. What passes for a smirk may actually be joy…Also, notice that smiles are almost all with teeth. Smirks, never.

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