The universal language of the ‘not face’

Facial movements used to communicate negative moral judgment have been found to be instinctive and universal to all cultures

You know that look. The one your wife gives you when you tell her your plans to scoot off to France to watch Ireland play in Euro 2016. The brows furrow, the lips press together and the chin rises slightly, and you know for certain you won’t be spending your summer with the Boys in Green.

Researchers at Ohio State University have declared this look to be a universal expression, recognised across all cultures, and used instinctively as though it is part of the language.

They have called it the “not face”, because people make it when they are expressing a negative sentiment or are in disagreement with something.

The research team, led by cognitive scientist Aleix Martinez, interviewed 158 students from four language groups – English, Spanish, Mandarin and American sign language.


The students' facial movements and expressions were recorded while they being interviewed. The researchers found that students from all four groups used the "not face" as a grammatical marker whenever they expressed a negative emotion, sometimes even substituting the expression for the corresponding spoken word or sign.

“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 Martinez.

If the team is proven right, and the “not face” is universal, this could represent quite a breakthrough in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Humans communicate not only with words but also with gestures, movements and facial expressions (and, of course, emojis).

Decoding the language of facial expressions can give scientists a greater understanding of how the human brain works, in social and cultural interaction, and in recognising emotions and intentions. Charles Darwin believed that emotional expression was an innate part of the human psyche and was universal to all cultures.

Happy is straightforward

We might assume that facial expressions are used the same way the world over, but could there be subtle differences in the language as you move between one culture and another?

"It's a bit of both," says Dr Rachael Jack, a lecturer at the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at Glasgow University. "Some of them are very common and very similar across cultures; for example, happy is quite similar. If someone has a happy face, we know they're happy, and that's pretty straightforward. Whereas confused, for example, is very different, say, between east Asian and western culture. Westerners tend to use a more horizontal mouth stretch, whereas east Asians tend to use the more vertical mouth stretch."

Jack is primarily interested in how people from different cultures use the face to communicate different social messages. “It might be emotions, but it might also be messages that you send during conversation, whether you are bored, confused or interested.”

Jack and her team use an “agnostic” method of researching facial expressions. Rather than present subjects with flat drawings of happy, sad, angry or disgusted faces, they generate random combinations of real facial movements, and ask people of different cultures to interpret the patterns.

"I think what's really interesting is discovering which dynamic patterns are used in different cultures. You have these culture-specific facial expressions that arise that you could never have thought up in your wildest dreams."

Dr Paul Ekman is the acknowledged modern-day authority on emotions and facial expressions. Ekman found that six basic emotions – happy, sad, surprised, angry, disgusted and fearful – are expressed the same way across a range of cultures. You could call them the primary colours of emotion.

Universal expressions

“Darwin was the first to present this idea, and Paul Ekman, he’s been the major proponent of the idea that these six expressions are universally recognised and instantly recognised. Now there’s some debate about that in the literature, and it’s not clear any more that they are universally recognised,” says Prof Fiona Newell of Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience.

“Where there might be six basic emotions that readily transfer across different cultures, there are subtleties that we also need to explicitly learn. For example, we go to different cultures and we’re told never look a person directly in the eye, that’s rude, but if people don’t do that, they may miss cues they get from changes in eye shape that tell them the emotional state of that person.

“But that doesn’t mean to say that these six categories aren’t basic across all cultures. They possibly are. The evidence suggests that that’s how the brain is structured – to be able to process all expressions to be one of those six or a mixture of those six – and that’s likely to be the same across the world.”

“Facial expressions come in a lot of different forms. You’ve got a lot of different types of facial expressions you can use to make all sorts of different functions,” says Dr Jack. “We probably had facial expressions long before we had spoken language.”


Understanding the language of facial expressions is vital for social interaction, and even survival, says Prof Fiona Newell of Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience.

“Disgust is a good one. It’s a very important social piece of information. If you see your friend eating something that you’re about to eat, and they’re suddenly disgusted, you can prevent yourself from becoming ill, or even dead, as a consequence of that facial expression. So the ability to recognise something like disgust is extremely important for survival,” she says.

“Another one is fear. If you see fear on the faces of others around you, then you’ll know that there is something dangerous in the environment, and you’ll be prepared to respond much more quickly.”

A neurological condition can affect a person’s ability to read facial expressions. “For example, people with Huntington’s disease have an inability to recognise the facial expression for disgust. They’re relatively unimpaired in recognising other expressions.”

Humans are good at recognising subtle changes in emotions that reveal different intentions, says Prof Newell. “Think of the face of a used-car salesman – big, wide smile, but there’s something about it that doesn’t click right.”

Can we replicate human expressions artificially? Dr Rachael Jack and her team are currently modelling a range of facial expressions and emotions from different social categories and across different cultures. “We’re then using these models to design social robots of the future that can express nuanced facial expressions, and culturally sensitive facial expressions as well.”

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist