According to new research published in the May issue of the journal Cognition, you may not need to. For speakers of Mandarin, Spanish, English and American Sign Language (ASL), languages with differing roots and grammatical structures, disagreement, it appears, still has a universal face: a slight frown, pursed lips and a raised chin. In ASL, speakers may even use this “not face” to illustrate their disagreement in a sentence, without any other negative sign at all.

It has been posited that when expressing negation in these different cultures, the facial muscles activated are the same as those used to express negative moral judgment. To conduct this research, scientists filmed 158 university students conversing in their mother tongue. They then asked students to read negative sentences, or incited the ‘not face’ by posing questions to which they would likely answer ‘no’; such as whether tuition fees should be raised. 

Biological and Natural Science applicants should explore how facial muscles used in sensory regulation have evolved firstly into an indicator of negative moral judgment and may now have further evolved into a facial expression of grammatical negation.

Anthropology, Linguistics and Modern Languages applicants should consider the relationship between spoken language and non-verbal language in communicating emotional responses. How accurately do we read between the lines in complex situations? We may well be saying ‘yes’, but are we aware our face is saying ‘no’?

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