Michael Bierut | Essays

Would It Kill You To Smile?

My lovely wife Dorothy, March 1976.

My lovely wife Dorothy finally finished a project that she's been planning for years: to organize all those old photographs, boxes and boxes of them, that we've been accumulating in our basement for over a quarter of a century. Most of these pictures are filled with smiling babies, smiling toddlers, smiling little kids, and smiling adults. The rest of these pictures are filled with non-smiling adolescents. Non-smiling, sullen, disaffected, alienated-looking 10- to 20-year-olds. Some of these were our own children. Some of them were relatives. Some of them were even us.

There must be something wrong with us, I remember thinking. Where is the joy of youth, the carefree spirit of eternal promise? Is there something inherently depressing about our family?

Then I discovered we were not alone. I discovered bershon.

Bershon was first introduced to a wide audience by writer and blogger Sarah Brown, who remembered it as a word from her own teenage years. Her definition is still the best:

The spirit of bershon is pretty much how you feel when you’re 13 and your parents make you wear a Christmas sweatshirt and then pose for a family picture, and you could not possibly summon one more ounce of disgust, but you’re also way too cool to really even DEAL with it, so you just make this face like you smelled something bad and sort of roll your eyes and seethe in a put-out manner.

What a relief! So it's not an obscure affliction limited to subjects of the pictures in our basement. Bershon is everywhere. There's a Flickr group called I'm So Bershon, and there it is, over and over again. "Every photo of me from high school can be summed up in that one word," says Heather Armstrong at Dooce. When Finslippy's Alice Bradley heard about bershon, her mind flashed back to her own adolescence, "when I was so consumed with distaste for everything and everyone I was forced to live with or near that I could not wipe that look off my face, no matter how I tried. I think I even slept with it on."

On reading that the Department of Homeland Security would be searching for passengers with suspicious expressions like disgust, anger and sadness, Defective Yeti's Matthew Baldwin suggested, "In addition to having to forgo your iPod and hair gel you will now be required to check in your teen prior to boarding." Threat Level Bershon! Exactly. If any doubt whatsoever remains, simply rent a copy of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and study Jennifer Grey's performance. She conducts a virtual master class on the Fine Art of Bershon over the entire course of the movie.

Once I became aware of bershon, it was tempting to start classifying everything as bershon. But there are rules:

1. Babies with cranky faces are not Bershon. Bershon implies a certain self-conscious world-hating attitude that only develops with time and hormones. Little kids may appear to be Bershon, but we are projecting.
2. Photos of someone who is kind of uncomfortable but who is about to crack up are not Bershon.
3. People who are just bored are not Bershon.
4. People who are stoic are not Berson.
5. Old people, in general, are not Bershon, though there may be exceptions.
6. Animals are not Bershon. Animal are animals.

Although bershon can be experienced and expressed anywhere, it seems to be especially associated with the act of being photographed. ("God, will you please just take the stupid picture?") You don't have to be an adolescent to qualify. There are hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of images of languid, bored, even stupefied-looking supermodels out there, all of them amply fulfilling the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws of bershon. And don't even get me started about author photographs. "John Updike, Bernie Siegel, David Halberstam, Dominick Dunne, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and Caryl Phillips all lean forward uncomfortably, their chins or cheeks supported by a fist or hand. (Presumably their own hands, but who knows?)," Dick Teresi once observed in a New York Times story titled "Haul Out the Old Cliches, It's Time to Shoot an Author Photo." He concluded, "They all look like failed lounge acts appearing at your local piano bar. Mr. Updike appears ready to launch into an angst-laden version of 'Sometimes When We Touch.'"

In the days when I used to design corporate promotional literature, I used to dread the moment when we'd have to take the deadly CEO portrait. Titantic kings of commerce, totally in control in the boardroom and the executive suite, predictably would collapse into caricatures of rumpled unease before the camera, all the while grumbling, "How long will this take?" Herculean feats would be required to make these symphonies of corporate bershon ready for publication. I remember one group portrait for a well-known but volatile investment bank that required so much retouching and alterations — all in the days before Photoshop, mind you — that it may as well have been a picture of the Soviet Politburo leadership circa 1932.

But men — and boys — really don't have what it takes. Their way of dealing with a photograph is to scowl, or make a horrible face. Bershon, ultimately, is a girls' game. For its quintessence, examine one of the most famous examples of all, Robert Frank's photograph "Elevator — Miami Beach," which appears on page 99 of his landmark 1959 book The Americans. The vaguely exasperated look on the operator's face, her eyes just short of rolling, the unspoken message clear as a bell: Lord, get me out of here. Sexy, too. This is what every girl is going for when she goes for bershon.

And who can blame them? I leave you with the last sentence from the legendary introduction that Jack Kerouac wrote for Frank's book. "And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what's her name & address?" So keep trying, girls. Right now you're surrounded by jerks. But somewhere there's a Jack Kerouac who's desperately trying to find you.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Photography

Comments [29]

Another activity which often suffers a world of duffers. A poor craftsman blames his tools, a poor photographer blames his subjects.

Aunt Lois used to complain how my brothers and I always had our eyes closed in family photos. It's not that we were surrealists, only that she took forever to snap the shutter.
m. kingsley

a lot of old photographs, from when cameras were new, picture people not smiling. i don't know where along the way someone decided the most attractive photograph was of a smile.

the bershon idea is funny, though.. that definitely exists. i am a believer in posing for a picture based on how you feel at that moment.

“would it kill you to smile?”
for some reason made me laugh. it's such a ....
having a senior moment ...the small neurotic comedian who wrote/directed anni hall?!
i just love jewish humour i must have been jewish in my previous life!
love sienfeld – not him his shows! lovely fellow though - a genius of note, on a par with the simpsons writers/creators!.
have to confess i didn’t read all your entry/post? – it’s too long for me given the time i have – sorry
hope you don’t mind!
got a wonderful email from a friend sue,“ if their mothers were jewish”
same humour - type of humour

That post was like, sooooo whatever... yawn
Henrik Tandberg

a lot of old photographs, from when cameras were new, picture people not smiling.

The exposure times for old cameras were so long, sometimes minutes at a time, that the subjects rarely smiled, for fear of losing that smile during the shot and having a blurry looking face in the print.

i don't know where along the way someone decided the most attractive photograph was of a smile.

The Mona Lisa?

Doug Bartow

Another activity which often suffers a world of duffers. A poor craftsman blames his tools, a poor photographer blames his subjects.

I'm all for superior craftsmanship, but it's not magic. If the subjects had nothing to do with it, then anyone can be a supermodel.

Wonderful post! You made my day – thanks!!
Nora Gummert-Hauser

I've read that households rating lowest on the happiness scale have a teenager in residence. Bershon is surely a big contributor this state of household misery. My 17-year-old son is bershon 24 hours a day, which makes me a bit bershon myself.

Thanks for putting a name to it.

Great post. I thought some historical perspective would be nice though.



First, God bless Sarah! Bershon all day long baby.

As for rule number six: "Animals are not "bershon." Animal are animals." Would comment that William Wegman has made a living off photographing Weimaraner's ability to "bershon."

Had a similar moment with a friend about trying to find a new term to describe "f*ck," "cool," "d*mn-right" or "awesome."

Agreed on "clutch." Still refer to each other as "Clutchy" in correspondence. Try it!

Clutch Out! :-)

Joe Moran

P.s. Dorothy = hot!

Joe Moran

I actually went through a whole year of bershon when I was 11, which my family still refers to as "the year you wouldn't smile." I can't remember why I wouldn't smile, but I have an entire year's worth of photos as evidence. Now I realize that I was simply practicing bershon. Thanks Michael!

I went through three teenagers and years of their bershon - rolled eyes, disgust. I came to the conclusion that the best photo of each one of them would be their closed (sometimes slammed) bedroom doors. So I took those photos & I keep them in my desk drawer. I take them out fondly on occasion, now that the teenage years are over, to reminisce. I'm thinking of having them framed as a series and hung on the wall in the living room - three shut doors.

JAL, that is so ingenious.

When we are teenagers (me only a few years ago... actually according to Teen People I'm still within range of being a teenager), we tend to measure our parents and family up against a certain standard that they are sure to fail.

We are unhappy no matter how good we have it. Our parents make us pose for picture times. How dare they! Other family seems like they can smile without being dishonest. Everybody seems to be happy except us. The only different about younger me and adult me, is that adult me realized that those other people were faking it too.

It's not wrong with being a rejectionist. I like an idea of a teenage son of Paul Rand rebels against him by using drop shadow and gradient.

The United States is the only country whose culture almost say it is hip to dislike your parents.

But back to Bershon, you guys don't have it anywhere near the worst. In my country (Thailand), people hate their life and they are not afraid to show it. Imagine, walk in the mall, all the sales clerks are frowning. Every waitress and waiter all looks like they can't wait to chase you out of the restaurant.

That's because my country has no tip, and no reason to smile. Middle class are part of the lower class, and upper class are too large.

Anyway, nobody wants to be surrounded by people who don't smile. Why? Because everybody has problems, and the one type of person no one wants to be with are people who think their problems are more important and more severe than anybody else.

So should we just smile even though we don't want to? That's faking it right? That's being like one of those stepford wives or something. The way I see it is: if the problem is not big enough to frown, it's not going to be gone in a few days or weeks. If you don't smile now, when are you going to?
You pretend to have fun, you might have it by accident (never quote Batman before, but I guess I will do it now.

Sometime when we are in bad mood, we don't want to cure it, fearing that it gives less weight to the importance of the things that make us angry.

But it's never wrong to try to be happy. The world is so beautiful. Every artist can choose to see that.... well, except Van Gogh.

Other terms for this have been "ennui" and "angst" (as well as "maladjusted"), and its a state usually associated with the fear of growing up and becoming a part of the world.

A good example of this can be seen in Michael Apted's Up Series. It's a documentary series in which the director visits his subjects every seven years, from age 7 to 49, the most current installment.

Many of the subjects at age 14 illustrate very well the concept of 'bershon'. They can barely stand to look in the camera, many of looking at the ground in an annoyed way. It's interesting to see in later installments (at 28– 49 especially), how most of the subjects move away from this state, some of them going on to accomplish great things.

Adolescence is that awful time when peer group approval becomes more important than parent approval, though legally you are still considered under the domain of your parents. As Pansit Ch notes above, this stage of life is highly aestheticized in America, from Rebel Without a Cause and The Catcher in the Rye to the films of Gus Van Sant. Of course, the dark undertone to this idealization is the school shooting crisis.


Manuel, the Michael Apted "Up" documentaries are a perfect illustration of bershon as a rite of passage, and reassuring evidence that for most it is a temporary situation.

And like so many others, I identified irresistibly with Holden Caufield for years, before realizing that he basically acts like a jerk all the way through Catcher in the Rye.
Michael Bierut

How does the Face of Shame, as recently demonstrated by Eliot Spitzer and other politicians fit in with bershon? Could it be considered a regression to pre-bershon?
Joe M.

this site is wonderful archive of old photos


In today's world, we are more liberal and smiling is expected. However, in history (yes, even recent history), smiling was sometimes a taboo and it was considered insincere and rude. I know that there are still some countries out there that don't allow smiling in important documents like passports. I've read stories of police-confiscated licenses because the person was smiling.

I don't know if this is what you are referring to Stacy, but a lot of small town in foreign country where they make licenses do not look at photograph carefully or they do not know some of the rules. One of the two biggest rules as far as I am aware (lord knows I take many license pictures) is that in the portrait, the entire ear needs to be shown (cannot be block by hair), and you can't show teeth.

I once smile in the picture and they can see my teeth, so I have to make a new one.

This was a great post!

"I've read that households rating lowest on the happiness scale have a teenager in residence. Bershon is surely a big contributor this state of household misery." Been there. Done that.

Also, I have two Weimaraners. This breed was bred to believe that they are people, not dogs. They can totally display bershon.

Forget teens - I know many people well into their 30's (or older) who are more Bershon than ever...

Other Bershon nominations:

- Toll-operator Bershon
- "Water Cooler" Bershon
- Help Desk / Tech Support Bershon
- Simon Cowell...
Jessica Gladstone


So you think guys can't pull off the bersh?
Our Mr Timberlake -- bringin Bershon back --
might disagree, esp whilst stuck in a photo w
eager parents the Iggs and the Ma-dons. Take
a fresh look, if you can be bothered to, at


10 min ago I got a call from my wife saying that our 15 year old daughter was extra searched by security at the airport and of course she ended up leaving her cell phone behind. LIfe with teens....

How would you pronounce the word???


You are such a good writer. My first time reading you and I enjoyed it a lot. So - thanks.

Thanks for the new word and definition. I always referred to it as the Sullen Teen Syndrome.

Bershon Smershon. Can I hire your lovely wife to come to Seattle and organize 30 years of sketches and thumbnails? Now that I have started this project it occurs to me that it is nigh impossible.
Mark Kaufman

: )
n a c o

Why do you assume that people who don't smile aren't happy? A perfectly calm, relaxed, and content person doesn't need to strain their faces all day long to be happy.

I also don't get this fake smiling for cameras, either. If you look at the photo of a neutral face and think that the person must be depressed, perhaps you are just projecting your own depression into the photo?

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