While leafing through some old research papers, Hillary Elfenbein noticed something strange about the photographs in one famous study. The research from the late 1980s had asked volunteers if they were able to identify emotions in the faces of Japanese and Caucasian people. Some of the “Japanese” faces were posed by Japanese-Americans, the rest by Japanese nationals.
They found that the Americans they tested were also strangely good at spotting who was Japanese and who was Japanese-American, even though they were all ethnically the same. When the two groups held neutral expressions, people could barely differentiate between them. But when they showed their feelings, especially sadness, something from Japan or America seemed to emerge.
If you’ve seen the film Inglourious Basterds, you will know that German and British people indicate the number three with their fingers in different ways. Germans raise their thumb and first two fingers; Britons pin the little finger with their thumb and raise the rest. Most never realise that this difference exists until they see the alternative, which, to them, looks strange.
Some signals may be random quirks that happened to catch on. Others may have served a purpose. Vladimir Putin is said to display his KGB weapons training in the way he walks, with his “gun arm” hanging motionless by his side.
Since their initial discovery, Marsh and Elfenbein have detected more of these “non-verbal accents” – physical ways in which we show where we come from without realising. Americans, for example, can spot Australians from the way they smile, wave or walk.
More recent research supports their findings. A team at the University of Glasgow has now trained a computer to recognise and then generate more than 60 different non-verbal accents on a simulated face. Subtle, almost indecipherable differences in the way a nose wrinkles and a lip is raised were often all that differentiated them. But when East Asians were shown these artificial “East Asian” expressions, they recognised them much more easily than “Western” ones.
The presence of these subtle cues might help to explain the bias that can creep into our thinking about people from different backgrounds. As we’ve seen, non-verbal accents often have the effect of making outsiders more difficult to understand.