Monday, April 4, 2016

Gestures: We All Do Them, But What Do They Mean?

           Gestures are an integral part of being human. Research (mostly just plain-old observation) has shown that people who have been born blind and are talking with other blind people will still use gesture in their speech (Goldin-Meadow). Various other observations have shown that human gestures are unique in the animal kingdom. Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and owner of possibly the most beautiful last name, writes in her piece, “The Role of Guesture and Communication and Thinking” (guess what it’s about? THE ROBOT ABOCOLYPSE) that,
“…it is interesting to note that chimpanzees in the wild do not use gesture as human children do. Chimps use gesture to request here-and-now action of another chimp (e.g. raising their arms over their heads to invite another chimp to groom them). In contrast, children use gesture, not only to request, but also to comment on objects in their surrounds (e.g. pointing to comment on distant events). Even chimps who are raised by humans do not interpret points referentially (i.e. they do not understand that the point is about a particular object); rather, they learn to respond to the gesture in such a way that they can garner a food reward. (423)”  

In more simple language: humans communicate for the sake of communicating much more than other animals do. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about the weather, you probably know what I’m talking about. Of course, some of us do it much more often than others, but we all do it sometimes.
Elsewhere in her piece that could have had a more imaginative title, Goldin-Meadow talks about all the different types of gestures that we use on a daily basis. These fall into five basic categories. 1) Emblems: these are culturally specific gestures that mean something everyone in that culture can understand – examples include the OK symbol and flipping someone the bird. – 2) Illustrators: these are not culturally specific and are usually used to illustrate something (hence the name; aren’t scientists clever?) – these gestures include pointing to the location of the tattoo you don’t want to show or showing the size of the imaginary fish you caught last week. – 3) Affect display: these are emotional displays – like a scowl or a smile. – 4) Regulators: these are more unconscious gestures and voice-shifts that usually indicate when it’s time for someone to speak – these could be as overt as turning to someone and saying “what do you think” or as subtle as lowering the pitch and timber of your voice when you reach the end of a list, like you would be doing right now if you were reading this out-loud. – 5) Adapters: These are usually quite unconscious and usually indicate boredom, anxiety or the like – examples include fiddling with a pen or a tie. –   
One thought I had while reading about all these different types of gestures was why context isn’t taken into account. (Or, at least, doesn’t seem to be.) Flipping your friend the bird after they make a joke at your expense feels much different from flipping the bird to someone who just cut you off. This context is essential to all forms of communication, but especially gestures because there are usually a relatively few number of them that are repeated quite often. (Although, there doesn’t have to be a few number of them. The gestures you can make with your hands are just as infinite as the words you can speak. *cough* Sign language.) With this context added into the equation, a gesture could fit into all five categories of gestures at once. (If you don’t believe me, just flip a friend the bird and ask them to categorize all the feelings they had.)
This brings up my second question: why are there so many categories of distinction?  These definite and nuanced distinctions are useful if we ignore context (and probably make research easier), but they don’t explain the way gestures work in the natural world. Or, at least, I don’t think so. So, I thought up classifications that seemed to make more sense. There are only two of them.
1) Gestures used that make or add nuance to an idea. (To fall under this category, the gesture has to be knowable, recognizable, and reasonably specific.)
2) Gestures that direct, deflect, or indicate attention. (These gestures are much more subtle.)
Think about all the gestures you make with your hands in a day. You wave to one of your friends. That’s the first one – you’re saying “hi” – (One could also make the argument that you’re drawing their attention to you as well, but I would argue almost anyone could tell you that a wave means some variation of “hi.”) You turn to look out the window when someone’s talking to you. That’s the second one – you’re trying to deflect their attention…usually. – (You could make the argument that you’re conveying the idea “I don’t want to have this conversation,” but I feel that looking out the window is a too common action to convey any specific idea.) You hold your hand out; that’s the first one – you’re saying some variation of “I want that.” (Again, it could also fall under the second because you’re directing that person’s attention to you, but the underlying message is strong and knowable, so I would say it falls under the first category.)

What about the most recognizable gestures of them all? How do facial expressions – affect displays – fit into this new system? I would argue that all these gestures would fall under the first category. In fact, they’re the most pure version of the first category. When you’re making a facial expression, you’re displaying your inner feelings and emotions…usually. These emotions and feelings are all abstract. They can only be described as ideas. There are all also knowable, recognizable, and reasonably specific. Everyone knows what a smile means. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world.     

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