The Best of Andy Rooney

Words are what we use most often to communicate information or a thought, but we transfer a lot of ideas from one person to another using means other than the written or spoken word. For example, we smile.

A smile is a complex way of indicating what we think to someone else because there are so many ways to smile. We smile to indicate we're amused. We smile to indicate we are pleased. If we wish to let the person looking at us know that we agree with what he or she said, we smile and nod in affirmation. We frown to convey the opposite of those ideas, but we don't frown anywhere near as often as we smile.

Some people are compulsive smilers. Even when they tell a sad story, they smile. I frown more than most people and smile less often, although I don't think my reaction to the world is any less positive than anyone else's. Smiling just doesn't come naturally to me, unprovoked.

Like so many things when they're overdone, a smile loses its meaning if a person smiles too often, and you can usually tell when a person is smiling for effect, and when he or she is smiling naturally. At its best, smiling is one of the nicest things to do.

Laughing is an extreme smile and doesn't have as many nuances as smiling has, although you can laugh, chuckle or guffaw. Laughing can be nasty, too. When you "laugh at" someone, you're not being friendly; you're being derisive. You're putting the person down.

The ways you can smile are almost infinite.

A smirk is a nasty smile. A grin is getting close to a laugh. A smile can even be evil. The Mona Lisa's smile is enigmatic. You wouldn't ever say that someone had an enigmatic laugh. When you see someone laughing, it seems as though the eyes are laughing, too, although eyes don't change. Not even Irish eyes really laugh. When the rest of the face, including even the nose, sometimes changes during a laugh, it gives the illusion that the eyes have joined in the fun.

The best smiles come unbidden.

You don't always decide to smile. Often your mouth widens and, involuntarily, the corners turn up slightly without your ever deciding to do it. That's why smiles are so good. The best ones are unplanned.

Professional photographers almost always insist that you smile.

"OK, look at the camera and smile." Why in the world should I smile because a photographer thinks I look better smiling? I don't think I look better. If the smile doesn't come naturally as the camera clicks, I look foolish, not friendly.

In newspaper pictures of businessmen, they're often seen smiling when, in actual fact, they seldom smile on the job. When a big corporation spends a fortune having its annual report printed in an elaborate brochure, it's full of hot air and the pictures fit the words.

All the executives are smiling as if each was Mr. Nice Guy. I don't want to see a business executive smiling at me in pictures.

There was a couplet in a bad book of poetry I had in grade school:

"The man worthwhile, is one who can smile

When everything goes dead wrong."

Nonsense. I don't want anyone faking a smile at me when everything's going wrong.

Andy Rooney is on vacation. This column was originally published Dec. 2, 1997.)

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