A Brit and Some Americans Have Words About a Facial-Expression Scandal That Blew Minds Across the Atlantic

The writer demonstrating a British frown. Her mouth has not moved, but her eyebrows furrowed.
What is this face doing? Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy Imogen West-Knights.

A couple of days ago, the U.K.-based YA author Melinda Salisbury wrote online: “Every time I write a character frowning now, I remember Americans think this is something you do with your mouth, and it ruins it.”

Soon after, I, a British person, logged into Slack to find my American Slate colleagues discussing this tweet. I read the conversation, and frowned. By which I mean I furrowed my brow, looking confusedly at the screen. Because that is what a frown is. At no point did my mouth move.


What the hell were they talking about? If someone frowns in America, they’re using their mouth? Like some kind of clownish impression of displeasure? Is a frown something you do when you’re sad in America?! I understood it to be my solemn duty to wade into this debate, for transatlantic cultural relations. Here is the discussion that followed.


Torie Bosch: What?!?!?!!!?


Forrest Wickman: More here.

[British person logs on]

Imogen West-Knights: The U.S.–U.K. frown difference has rocked my world. What do Americans call the forehead/eyebrow thing that we call frowning??

Natalie Shutler: I think we call it frowning, but we pair it with a mouth movement? You can still frown with your eyebrows here, you just might also be frowning with your mouth.

Lizzie O’Leary: Furrowed brow?

Shannon Palus: “Being skeptical”? I’m having trouble even picturing the eyebrow movement alone!

Lizzie O’Leary: Honestly this explains a lot about the differences between the U.S. and U.K. Brits are subtle. Americans are always a bit much.


Imogen West-Knights: If someone frowned at me with their mouth, I don’t know what I would do. It would be like getting punched in the face.


Lizzie O’Leary: SEE? That makes my point!

Shannon Palus: What do you do when you’re sad in the U.K, if not a mouth frown?

Imogen West-Knights: If a British person is sad, they get up, leave the room, and you will never hear anything about it for as long as you live.


Frowning isn’t sad here. It’s like, disgruntled or confused.

Lizzie O’Leary: I remember hosting a series with the BBC and getting off an editorial call and having my British producer explain that “that works” meant they loved it. And “mmm needs a bit more” meant they hated it.

Imogen West-Knights: I had to tell a North American person recently about the “quite good” thing recently. One who lives here in London! And he was so horrified.


Shannon Palus: Wait, what is that?

Imogen West-Knights: He had been describing things to British people as “quite good.” In the U.K., “quite good” means “not that good.” Like, “quite good” is less good than good. Whereas I think you use it as an intensifier—more like, very good.


Lizzie O’Leary: Yeah, means they hated it.

Shannon Palus: !!!

Rebecca Onion: Dear God.

Lizzie O’Leary: It’s extremely confusing in a collaborative work situation!

Imogen West-Knights: Everyone here would understand it to mean “it was fine,” but not great. Anyway, I watched this poor man’s life flash before his eyes as he recalled every time his British boss had described his work as “quite good.”


Imagine now how terrifying it is when a British person actually says they don’t like something. That means you fucked up so, so bad.

Lizzie O’Leary: Fair play to you, Imogen. I have never mastered that one.

Imogen West-Knights: Fair play kind of translates as “I don’t have anything to say about that, but feel I should speak.”

Rebecca Onion: That’s useful.

Imogen West-Knights: It is.

Dan Check: Wait, what do British people picture when they hear “turn that frown upside down”?

Imogen West-Knights: “An American is speaking to me of things I cannot parse.” I think we just never say that, and now I understand why I have never liked that phrase.


Heather Schwedel: Is there a difference, in the U.K., between a frown and a sad face? Like a sterner, angrier version vs. just a sad version.

Imogen West-Knights: Yes. Ugh, hold on, let me demonstrate.


The author with a furrowed brow.
Imogen West-Knights

Sad face:

The author with a sad face. Her mouth has moved.
Imogen West-Knights

Please excuse the bad lighting and general appearance.


Shannon Palus: That’s a frown!!!

Imogen West-Knights: I am sorry to say that is just how my mouth looks. I did consider fake smiling a bit to mitigate the fact that my mouth looks that way.

Rebecca Onion: Lol. Sorry, I don’t mean to laugh. But these look EXACTLY alike.

Shannon Palus: No, the second one is an American frown!

Daniel Schroeder: It looks like frowning is more an expression of frustration than sadness/disappointment, which is what I associate with frowning.

Imogen West-Knights: Yes.

Rebecca Onion: “Fair play to you” is what it means.

Heidi Strom Moon: One of these photos needs to be Imogen’s Slack pic.

Imogen West-Knights: Fair.