Downtime

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Frown:

The author with a furrowed brow.
Imogen West-Knights
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Sad face:

The author with a sad face. Her mouth has moved.
Imogen West-Knights
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Please excuse the bad lighting and general appearance.

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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.

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