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Holten: A smile upside down

Holten cartoon

What expression do you most often have on your face? If you’re like most people, it’s a frown.

Of course, you’re going to argue with me about that because you really don’t think you frown that often, but you do. Pay attention. You’ll be surprised.

Mr. Dictionary says that a frown (as a verb) is when you furrow your brow in an expression of disapproval, displeasure or concentration. He also says that a frown (as a noun) is a facial expression or look characterized by a furrowing of one’s brows.

Perhaps if you use the word in a sentence you might say, “He frowned as he reread the letter.” Meanwhile synonyms for the word (or words that have the same meaning) are scowl, glower, glare, make a face, or give someone a dirty look.

Doesn’t sound real pleasant, does it?

For some reason I’ve noticed it more often when I’m out and about lately. The driver coming the other way or at the four-way stop is most often frowning. Strangers at the gym, other patrons in line for food, and motorists getting gas are all frowning.

For a while I wondered if it was just me that they were frowning at and so I made sure that I never went without aftershave. But then I quickly realized that they were frowning at everyone.

There was a time in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when every model in every ad in every magazine wore a smile. Now almost all of them wear a frown. In fact, the term “strike the pose” has become synonymous with a stern look that can only be categorized as a frown.

Therefore, it seems that we are living in the age of the frown, and I wonder why? Of course, I have a theory. It’s all about intimidation.

That’s right. For some reason we think we have to subtly intimidate everyone we meet. In animals those kinds of actions are called threat behavior.

You see, for animals, threat behavior is any behavior that signifies hostility or intent to attack another animal, and its purpose is to cause an opponent to back down and leave. For us, it’s more about wanting them to leave us alone or to stay out of our space.

Maybe that’s why we lift weights, pierce body parts and paste tattoos all over our bodies. We aim to intimidate. Why? I guess because we’re afraid.

My grandmother was born in 1898 and she was the youngest of a dozen or so children. They took a picture of the family when she was about 20 years old and none of them were smiling. Then again, that was way back in about 1918, and when they took photos back then they made you remain motionless for about as long as it took to swim the English Channel, so who’d have felt like smiling?

Thus, they had an excuse. We don’t.

Of course, there are some famous “frowners” like Adolf Hitler, who almost single-handedly destroyed the world, and Grumpy, the grump of the seven dwarfs from Disney’s 1937 film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Then there is comedian Steven Wright, who, although he is hilarious, only smiles once a decade, Boris Karloff, the horror actor who played Frankenstein and was paid not to smile, and then there was Dick Nixon, our former president who was famous for both his smile with a two-handed victory salute and his frown.

Mary J. Blige, the American singer, songwriter, record producer and actress once said, “Sometimes I frown and I don’t realize it.”

I think we do that.

Then there’s an old Jewish proverb that says, “The man who gives little with a smile gives more than the man who gives much with a frown.”

That’s cool but the best frown quote ever might be this one: “For every up there is a down, for every frown there is a smile, for every night there is a day and for every problem there is a way.”

I love that.

Holten is the editor of The Drill and the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Email him at or call him at 701-456-1208.