You speak as much with your gestures as your voice. You use your hands to express a variety of culturally understood gestures, some rude and offensive. Some of us also have very idiosyncratic gestures particular to ourselves. We "leak" what we are really thinking by foot-tapping or perhaps changing our posture.
Hands, heads and feet can be used to produce a very wide range of signals, signs and other movements. Hand movements accompany speech and can be used to:
- point to people, objects, or yourself;
- show spatial relationships (inside/outside; up/down);
- show spatial movements (round-and-round);
- beat time by showing rhythm and tempo;
- show particular movement (punching or kicking);
- draw a visual picture (spiral slide, odd-shaped room).
Traditionally, it is argued that most culturally recognized gestures have relatively specific meanings. Nodding your head means that you are listening or that you agree, while shaking your fist often means anger. In most cultures, palm rubbing means anticipation, and hand-clapping, approval. Thumbs down is about disapproval and shrugging soldiers a lack of interest. A pat on the back can mean encouragement. Some use pretending to shoot oneself (hand in the shape of a pistol to the head) to indicate that one has done something stupid.
The Anglo-Saxon world is surprisingly gesture-poor, possibly because of the richness of the English language. The "teeth flick" (meaning anger), the "cheek screw" (meaning "good") or the "eyelid-pull" (meaning "I am alert") are unknown in the English-speaking world. (Go to southern Europe if you really want to see people using gestures to communicate.)
How frequently people gesture is a function of many things—whether others can see them (though many gesture a lot while on the phone); how excited, involved and enthusiastic they are; when the topic is complex; when the listener seems not to be paying attention; when the speaker wants to dominate the listener; when the topic is concrete and about manual activities (pitching a tent, tying a tie) rather than abstract; and when the speaker has limited verbal skills.
It is possible to distinguish between many different types of gestures. Paul Ekman, one of the most important living psychologists, long ago distinguished between:
- Emblems—sign language, often rude, sometimes part of a task- or occupation-specific culture. They are a shorthand (pun intended) substitute for words.
- Illustrators—movements that accompany and amplify speech. The size of the fish that got away and the place of the pain in the body are both illustrators.
- Regulators—gesture movements like those of an orchestral conductor. They attempt to regulate conversation: to shut someone up, bring others in, or encourage them to continue.
- Adaptors—anxiety or displacement movements that may reveal emotions.
- Displays—often ritual gestures of powerful emotions or symbolic quality, such as the clenched fist, the Nazi salute, or the laying on of hands.
If a person taps his or her temple with a forefinger it can mean "crazy" or intelligent—opposite meanings for an identical gesture. This hand-to-brain contact could mean a "bad brain" (a fool) or a "good brain" (very bright or clever). The context and the culture determine the meaning of gestures, yet many extend well beyond specific or national boundaries.
Gestures can say something of the emotional state of others, particularly their level of excitement or anxiety. Self-touching, the neck-scratch, a collar-tug, or fingers in the mouth gestures are often particularly telling of shame, doubt, and presentational anxiety.
Gestures also give information about personality. Extroverts tend to be more expansive, while people with depression have fewer, slower, more hesitant and non-emphatic gestures. Neurotics touch their faces and hair often, scratching and pulling; they indulge in the wringing and interlocking of their hands and the opening and closing of their fists.
There are many gestures which are easily interpreted in Anglo-Saxon culture. These include rubbing hands together (excited expectation, or simply being cold). Clenching hands (in front of the face, on a desk or in front of the crotch) may signal confidence or frustration while steepling hands (up or down) is usually a positive gesture of confidence; thumb displays (holding your jacket lapels, sticking your thumbs out of a pocket) are thought to show superiority, pomposity, and possibly ridicule.
Hand-to-face gestures are particularly intriguing and nicely characterized by the three monkey states of "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." The mouth guard, possibly disguised as a fake cough or used to conceal a yawn, is often associated with lying, as is the nose touch. It has been suggested that if a speaker touches his or her mouth he or she may be lying, while if the listener does it, it suggests that he or she believes the speaker is lying.
The eye-rub (see no evil), the ear-rub (hear no evil), and the neck-scratch, collar-tug or fingers in mouth (not nail-biting) are often seen as signs of deceit or uncertainty—or simply anxiety. It may be that anxiety, or anxiety about lying, causes physical tension, which leads to the gesture, rather than it being the manifestation of an unconscious idea.
Touching the chin, cheek, or jaw is usually associated with thinking (evaluating what is being said or making a decision) and occasionally with boredom. Rubbing the back of the neck is often interpreted as a sign of frustration ("pain in the neck"). Folded arms or using bags, flowers, or books as a barrier is usually interpreted as defensiveness or nervousness. Equally, leg or foot crossing with ankle locks is usually interpreted as coldness or defensiveness. Precisely when these gestures are adopted or changed (particularly in terms of what is being said at the same time) is an important clue to their interpretation.
The popular author of many body-language books, Allan Pease, has noted various other sorts of known gestures:
- Straddling a chair (sitting backwards)—using the back of the chair as a defense because of aggression.
- Fluff-picking (picking imaginary fluff off clothes)—approval or deliberately withholding evidence.
- Both hands behind the head—controlled, dominant, and confident.
- Hands on hip or in belt—sexual aggressiveness or sizing one another up.
- Tie-straightening—preening in males as a courtship gesture.
Equally, one can use various props like cigars, pipes, and glasses to send gestures. How and where smoke is blown, how cigarettes are held, and when glasses are put in the mouth are all interpreted as meaning something whether the actor meant it or not. Film actors deliberately use certain actions to convey the motives and mood of their character. Anything put in the mouth may be thought of as a gesture of reassurance or possible aggression.
Gestures are important at work. Leaders sometimes choose symbolic gestures like V for victory. They become recognized by the way they do things—point, adjust their glasses, fiddle with their cufflinks. Some leaders are coached in gesturing, to avoid some gestures that they seem to use too much while learning others which are thought to indicate things like their sincerity and power.
Watch a political speech without the sound and see how much you can understand, and you begin to understand the power of gestures.
Clearly it is not only what you say, but the way you say it that is important.