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NPR Arts & Life

We All Know The "Not Face" – Now We Have A Name For It

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So you know when someone tells a joke and maybe it's just not that funny and also maybe a little bit offensive, and you respond with a face? And it's not just disapproving. It's unsmiling. It confers a sense of puzzlement and a touch of judgment. Turns out that face, no matter the language or culture, is kind of universal. We all make that face. It's even the same in sign language.

And it has a name now. Researchers from Ohio State have named it the Not Face. We've got the study author with us right now, cognitive scientist Aleix Martinez. Welcome to the program.

ALEIX MARTINEZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What are the kinds of things that could elicit the Not Face?

MARTINEZ: Anything that you disagree with, especially if you disagree with me very strongly, or if you just want to tell me, no way. There is no way I'm going to do this, there's no way I agree - you would produce a Not Face.

MARTIN: But does the Not Face replace a verbal response, or it's the precursor to a verbal response?

MARTINEZ: You produce both, the verbal response for no and the facial expression. In American Sign Language, what we have detected is that this facial expression we call the Not Face, that's indeed substitute the word for not. So signers will usually sign with their hands a manual sign that's called a not. And in some cases, they substitute this sign by the Not Face.

MARTIN: All right, so I know it's radio, but can you try to make me make the Not Face?

MARTINEZ: (Laughter). Are you willing to give me your salary for the next couple of months?

MARTIN: See, that just makes me smile because that's ridiculous.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

MARTIN: No, I'm not. Maybe we don't know each other well enough for you to insult me because it's basically you have to tell me something that makes me mad, right?

MARTINEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: And you sound like a nice guy, so it's probably not going to happen.

MARTINEZ: It's true. I think that the best way to produce a Not Face is to talk to a close friend of yours, someone that you really know how to, you know, how to press the buttons.

MARTIN: Is there someone out there, a celebrity or a public figure, who gives the epitome of the Not Face?

MARTINEZ: We have seen quite a bit of faces online from Chancellor Angela Merkel from Germany.

MARTIN: Oh, poor Angela.

MARTINEZ: I know.

MARTIN: (Laughter) She does communicate a lot, though, in those facial expressions.

MARTINEZ: I guess so.

MARTIN: Aleix Martinez is a cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MARTINEZ: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.