See Inside August/September 2007

Unspoken Accents

Nonverbal language reveals your roots

Just as an Irish brogue or a Minnesota lilt betrays one's background, facial expressions and body language can also reveal our cultural origins. According to new research, such “nonverbal accents” also provoke stereotyped perceptions of others' personalities.

Many researchers regard nonverbal behavior to be a universal language—wherever you go, a smile looks like a smile. But a growing body of research suggests that where we hang our hats shapes both how we display emotion and how we perceive it in others. In a new study, psychologists Abigail Marsh, Hillary Elfenbein and Nalini Ambady, all then at Harvard University, found that American volunteers could distinguish American from Australian faces when the faces were photographed smiling but not when they were photographed with neutral expressions.

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