You know the face. It’s the one you unconsciously make when your one “friend” shows up and wants to catch up on your life even though they didn’t invite you to their wedding. Or when your parents present you with an awkward gift at dinner. Or when your frenemy decides to make a passing comment on the upcoming election that’s both horrifying and ridiculous. It’s “You didn’t” meets “Are you serious?” meets “You’ve got to be kidding” — all combined in one snide expression.
This face, as it turns out, has a name: It’s the “not face,” according to a group of researchers who have just published a paper in the journal Cognition on the expression. What’s more, they claim the “not face” has a purpose beyond expressing distaste for the person or subject at hand. It may help explain the evolution of language, by acting as a grammatical modifier — that is, “a sound or facial expression or sign that has some grammatical function,” which helps to “distinguish animal communication from human language,” lead researcher Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Ohio State University, told the Washington Post. More specifically, Martinez and his colleagues think that “not face” presents a question mark to its viewers: That thing you just said made no sense and didn’t fit into the listener’s expectations.
To study this, the researchers rounded up 184 Ohio State University students and asked them to respond to questions in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and American Sign Language — whatever language they considered their native one. Researchers would ask questions (one example: “A study shows that tuition would increase 30 percent. What do you think?”) and students would instinctively contort their faces into disgust, contempt, and anger — in other words, the “not face.”
Photo: Ohio State University
The “not face” is cross-cultural, but perhaps the most fascinating faces for the researchers to watch were those of the students who communicated using American Sign Language. ASL speakers tend to act out their emotions and exaggerate movements to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and their “not face” extended an already visually powerful emotion even further. “In fact, we saw that in sign language in particular, sometimes the sign for ‘not,’ which is usually signed with the hand, was omitted, and that facial expression of negation was used instead,” Martinez told the Post. “In some cases the only way you’d know the sentence was negative was that facial expression.”
Turns out our usage of grammar — question-mark-like quizzical looks, breaths taken for commas, the ilk — are sort of a random human quirk, though studies have suggested birds might do a similar thing when they’re conversing. Martinez thinks the “not face” evolved to serve as a visual marker of negation or hypocrisy.
It’s not the first time this year that scientists have attempted to figure out if our faces can quantify something more than whatever they’re emoting; back in February, Science of Us reported on how resting bitch face got some serious analysis. But what do all of these faces mean? Martinez & Co. hypothesize that conversations have evolved to be much more complex than an exchange of words and ideas, and that your face and visual perception have a huge role in adding depth to a conversation. Researchers have a lot of work to do before they can determin what your face is trying to say, but rest assured, your face is probably already doing most of the talking here.