George W. Smirkology: An Update

This just in (via e-mail) regarding George W. Bush’s smirk from the University of North Carolina’s John Shelton Reed, who co-edits Southern Cultures magazine:

The phenomenon has an easy explanation. Young Bush is a Texan. Texans are Southerners. Southerners smile more than other Americans. Ray L. Birdwhistell has studied this, and discussed the misunderstandings that result.You’re probably too young to recall that Jimmy Carter smiled all the time, too. [Au contraire: Chatterbox cast his first-ever ballot for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 California primary.] This spooked Yankees, who feared that he knew something they didn’t. The fact that Al Gore doesn’t grin much is eloquent testimony to the fact that he’s a St Alban’s graduate and (at best) what Doug Marlette calls a faux Bubba. And my theory is that Bill Clinton bites his lip to keep from smiling.

Chatterbox, who during his one-day immersion in the science of nonverbal communication never came across the name Birdwhistell, asked Reed for more information about Birdwhistell’s work. Reed replied:

Ray Birdwhistell was an anthropologist, late of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, who pioneered what he called “kinesics,” the study of non-verbal communication. Unfortunately, he diedabout five years ago and I don’t remember where I saw the article about smiling, but I wrote it up for a book my wife and I did called 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South.(It’s No. 163.)Here’s my summary: Smiling appears to be a Southern custom. Ray L. Birdwhistell found smiling among middle-class folk on the street most common in Atlanta, Louisville, Memphis, and Nashville, followed by cities in the Midwest, the New England, and, last, western New York. … Such differences can be misunderstood: “In one part of the country an unsmiling individual might be queried as to whether he was ‘angry about something,’ while in another, the smiling individual might be asked, ‘What’s funny?’”

Chatterbox was unable to get his hands quickly on a copy of Birdwhistell’s magnum opus, Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication, but he had no difficulty believing Birdwhistell’s thesis, as summarized by Reed. If Bush had the kind of unctuous smile associated with many southern politicians, Chatterbox would say: Case closed.* But, as has been widely noted, Bush’s smile is a kind of half-grimace. This leaves two possibilities:

  • Bush’s compulsion to smile is essentially southern, but the smile itself is corrupted by other influences (a few possibilities were cited in Chatterbox’s previous item) that transform it into a smirk;


  • Bush’s compulsion to smirk bears no relation to the southern compulsion to smile, but is wholly the result of other phenomena.

If the first possibility were correct, that would be good news for the southern credentials of George Bush Sr., since (as C-Span’s Brian Lamb observed in the Wall Street Journal piece quoted in Chatterbox’s earlier item) the smirk was clearly passed from father to son (acquiring some exaggeration in the process). It will be remembered that George Bush Sr. was never taken seriously by some people as a Texan; he was criticized as being “all hat and no cattle”–a transplanted Connecticut preppie who tried too hard. But if the Birdwhistell theory explains (even in part) George W.’s smirk, it must perforce also explain (in part) the milder version worn by George Bush Sr.

However, if the second possibility were correct, then both George Bush Sr.’s and George W.’ southern identities would have to be called into question. Chatterbox leans toward this latter interpretation, because he can’t recall ever seeing any true southerner smirk, not even Molly Ivins; hers is a different kind of smile altogether. If Birdwhistell, in his travels, had been looking not for smiles but for smirks, Chatterbox strongly suspects he would have found lots of them on the smile-barren East Coast, especially in the vicinity of its prep schools and Ivy League universities. Here’s a thought experiment: Summon up a mental image of Ali McGraw, the smirkiest performer in the history of the movies. (If you need a little help, click here.) Now try to imagine her speaking with a southern accent. Can’t be done, can it?

* Chatterbox is well aware that many Texans resist attempts to classify their breed as southern, or western, or anything other than Lone Star. For the purposes of this discussion, though, Chatterbox will accept Reed’s premise that Texans are southerners.