#nopeface: One Universal Expression That Says 'Not' Across Cultures

A unique facial expression used when conveying negative sentence structure combines elements of anger, disgust and contempt. stockphoto4u/Getty Images

How many different ways are there to say no? Apparently just one. Researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) have identified a single complex facial expression that combines aspects of three emotions, and appears to be universal across many human cultures. A new study published in the journal Cognition zeroes in on what the researchers call, quite simply, a "not face."

The research found that people from different cultures use the same facial muscles when speaking a negative statement, like when using the word "not" in a sentence, as they used when experiencing and expressing emotions like disdain, contempt, disappointment or anger.

"To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that the facial expressions we use to communicate negative moral judgment have been compounded into a unique, universal part of language," said head researcher Aleix Martinez, an OSU cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering, in a press release announcing the findings.

The research team used computer software developed two years ago to detect 21 different emotional expressions. Regardless of cultural and linguistic context — the study included more than 150 students who spoke Spanish, English, Mandarin and American Sign Language (ASL), languages chosen because they represent a diverse group of grammatical structures — the same facial expressions were detected when students used a negative sentence construction: "I am not going to Netflix and chill," for instance, rather than "I am going to Netflix and chill."

Any time the negative grammatical tool appeared, students instinctively made the "not face," which the researchers defined as an intersection of three emotions: "the furrowed brows of 'anger' combined with the raised chin of 'disgust' and the pressed-together lips of 'contempt.'"

Researchers identified a universal facial expression interpreted across many cultures and languages as conveying negative emotion.
Ohio State University

What was really interesting is that not only did the students who spoke ASL make the face when signing the word for "not," but sometimes they used the facial expression as a word itself, even though it's not a part of the signing canon (which also includes a side-to-side shake of the head to mean "not").

"This facial expression not only exists, but in some instances, it is the only marker of negation in a signed sentence," Martinez said. "Sometimes the only way you can tell that the meaning of the sentence is negative is that person made the ‘not face' when they signed it."

What's it all mean? The researchers say their findings suggest some components of human language and grammar may have evolved directly from emotional facial expressions. So while you may not be able to the words someone from another culture is speaking, at least you'll know what they're saying.