Body language can be a dead giveaway of where you're from. People can tell whether you're from Australia or the U.K. by the way you smile. They can tell whether you're from China or Egypt by the way you count using your fingers. And they know whether you're American or German depending on how you express sympathy.
But when it comes to expressing negative emotions, our body language might be much more universal than we realize. The proof is in a single facial expression that crosses over cultures and languages around the world: the "not face."
Researchers at Ohio State University coined the term after analyzing video recordings of conversations with 158 native speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language.
The team, led by cognitive scientist Aleix Martinez, homed in on negative statements — like "that's not a good idea" or "I don't like that" — and used computer algorithms to map the corresponding facial movements.
A pattern emerged across all study subjects, in every language: negative sentiments were accompanied by a furrowed brow, pressed lips and raised chin. In other words, the "not face."
The "not face" is a combination of the facial expressions we use to show disgust, anger and contempt. "Language didn't just happen instantly from nothingness," says Martinez. "It had to come from somewhere. This facial expression has a grammatical function. It's a nonverbal equivalent of the word 'not.' "
"This gives us an explanation of how language might have evolved through facial expressions, which is one of the big unknowns in science," he adds. Over time, the "not face" probably evolved from a basic, reflexive facial expression to a grammatical marker with a specific meaning. Before we learned to say the word "not," we simply made the face.
Is there a universal "yes face"?
"Maybe," says Martinez, but a "not face" is more important. "If you do something right and someone tells you you did it right, that has some social value, but if you are doing something that's about to kill you, you really need to know, right away," he says. Hence the dramatic — and instantly recognizable — facial expression.
The limited sample of the Ohio State study didn't include African languages. Martinez and his team are hoping to remedy that in the next phase of their study, which will include analyzing thousands of hours of YouTube videos.
"We are preparing to do a big data analysis, and once we have this we'll be able to not only identify the 'not face' in more cultures but hopefully identify other facial expressions that convey grammar," he says.
In our hyperconnected world, it's easy to assume that the "not face" is simply a cultural tic that has spread socially through globalization and technology. But Martinez says, in this "chicken or the egg" scenario, the facial expression came long before Justin Bieber videos and Apple FaceTime.
"This is an expression that everyone produces completely spontaneously," he says. "You don't have to make an effort to make this face. I would be extremely surprised if this was a learned behavior."