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Found: The Universal Expression for ‘Yeeeeah…No’

This is the “not face.”

Presenting: the not face. (Photo: Ohio State University)

There are three steps to making what Ohio State researchers have called the “not face.”

Furrow your brow. (You’re angry.)

Raise your chin. (You’re disgusted.)

Press your lips together. (You are full of contempt.)

That’s the not face.

You’ve used it before, to express your disagreement. In a new study, published in the journal Cognition, researchers found that not only does the not face reliably accompany expressions of disagreement, it’s used across many cultures.

The not face may be a cross-species expression. (Photo: memegenerator.net)

To find the not face, the researchers had 158 Ohio State students sit in front of the camera and talk about distasteful things. (One sample question used to elicit the not face—“A study shows that tuition should increase 30 percent. What do you think?”)

The researchers were looking to see if they could identify a “facial expression of negation regularly used as a grammatical marker.” In other words, were people making a face to change or emphasize what they were saying? The researchers interviewed students in four different languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin, and ASL. In every case, they found people using the not face, “as if it were part of spoken or signed language.” ASL speakers sometimes used the not face instead of the sign for not.

There are two discoveries here. First, the researchers identified a face that we’ve all been making but didn’t have a name for. Second, they discovered that it’s been incorporated not just into our emotional communication but into our language—so much so that you don’t always need to use a word for “yeah, no.” You’re already making the face, and the person you’re talking to knows exactly what it means.

Bonus finds: A unicorn

Every day, we highlight one newly found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.