See also Feet Palmdown Palmup Selftouch

Copyright © 1998 - 2002 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)



Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy ofinterpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. --Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

Nonverbal sign. 1. A body movement, posture, or material artifact which encodes or influences a concept, motivation, or mood (thus, a gesture is neither matter nor energy, but information). 2. In its most generic sense, a gesture is a sign, signal, or cue used to communicate in tandem with, or apart from, words. 3. Gestures include facial expressions (e.g., EYEBROW-RAISE, SMILE), clothing cues (e.g., BUSINESS SUIT, NECKWEAR), body movements (e.g., PALM-DOWN, SHOULDER-SHRUG), and postures (e.g., ANGULAR DISTANCE). Many consumer products (e.g., BIG MAC®, VEHICULAR GRILLE, VEHICULAR STRIPE) contain messaging features designed to communicate as signs, and may be decoded as gestures as well. 4. Those wordless forms of communication omitted from a written transcript. (E.g., while the printed transcripts of the Nixon Tapes reported the words spoken by the former president and his White House staff, they captured few of the gestures exchanged in the Oval Office during the Nixon years.)

Anthropology. ". . . we respond to gestures with an extreme alertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all" (Sapir 1927:556; see below, Hand gestures).

Baby gestures. 1. "This article (Acredolo and Goodwyn 1985) presents the story of our first 'Baby Signer,' Linda's daughter Kate who began to spontaneously create symbolic gestures when she was about 12 months old. These were 'sensible' gestures (like sniffing for 'flower' and arms-up for big'). We then made it easy for her by modeling other simple gestures for things in which she was interested and followed her progress in terms of both gestural and verbal development" (from Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn's Baby Signs® Research web page). 2. Subsequently, Acredolo, Goodwin, and others applied their findings about Baby Signs (a.k.a. symbolic gesturing), to teach and encourage the use of symbolic gestures in infancy so as to improve verbal language acquisition (see, e.g., Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown (2000).

Cetology. "A sequence of three gestures LEFT, FRISBEE, TAIL-TOUCH instructs the dolphin to swim with the frisbee that is to its left with its tail flukes" (Montgomery 1990:B2).

Culture. Accompanying hundreds of human-wide, universal gestures, such as the shoulder-shrug and smile (which, themselves, may be shaped by culture) are hundreds of additional gestures which must be learned to be understood (see NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION, Kind ofcues). Many of the latter, culturally coded gestures--such as the hand ring (Italy), hand ring-jerk (Great Britain), hand ring-kiss (France), and hand ring pull-side (Holland)--have been identified by Desmond Morris (1994).

Hand gestures. We respond to hand gestures with an extreme alertness because dedicated nerve cells in our primate brain's lower temporal lobe respond exclusively to hand outlines, positions, and shapes (Kandel et al. 1991:458-59).

Paleontology of gesture. ". . . there is a primate (or perhaps mammalian or even vertebrate) level [of nonverbal communication] that contains the gestural primitives common to all people and in some instances all primates or all mammals. Examples are gestures implying bigness as signs of threat or intimidation [see LOOM], and gestures implying smallness as signs of submission [see CROUCH]. Loudness and softness in vocal communication have the same import. In this context, Givens (1986) has called for a 'paleontology of gesture'" (Armstrong et al.1995:6-7).

Primatology, chimpanzees. ". . . bonobos often add so-called finger-flexing, in which the four fingers of the open hand are bent and stretched in rapid alternation, making the [outstretched-hand gestured] invitation [i.e., the request for food, support, or bodily contact] look more urgent" (Waal and 1997:29).

Salesmanship. "Rehearse the speed at which you gesture, either in a mirror or on videotape. Quick, jerky movement belies a calm interior or voice" (Delmar 1984:48).

Sea lion gestures. "Four gestures, which indicate WHITE, SMALL, FOOTBALL and TAIL tell the sea lions to find the small white football and touch it with its tail" (Montgomery 1990:B2).

Sociology. "Following Wundt, [George Herbert] Mead [in his 1934 book, Mind, Self, and Society, Chicago, U Chicago Press] took the gesture as the transitional link to language from action, and also as the phenomenon establishing the continuities of human and infrahuman social life" (Martindale 1960:355).

Word origin. From Latin gestus, from (past participle) gerere, "to behave."

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "Gesture includes much more than the manipulation of the hands and other visible and movable parts of the organism. Intonations of the voice may register attitudes and feelings quite as significantly as the clenched fist, the wave of the hand, the shrugging of the shoulders, or the lifting of the eyebrows" (Sapir 1931:105). 2. The term ethology was used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for "the interpretation of character by the study of [human] gesture"; in the 20th century ethology came to mean the "comparative anatomy of [animal] gestures," to reveal the "true characters of the animals" (Thorpe 1974:147).

E-Commentary: "I am a support teacher for visually impaired children and I am currently working with a blind 8 year old girl. I am looking for information on teaching suitable gestures to replace socially unacceptable behaviours. One such behaviour is the flapping of arms when excited. This student is very bright and social. Any suggestions on other gestures or body language that may be helpful would be appreciated." --J.W., Australia (8/6/01 11:47:10 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes. Many hand gestures are produced in speech areas of the right hemisphere, which were abandoned, in early childhood, as language shifted to the left hemisphere (Carter 1998:155).

Copyright © 1998 - 2002 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)



Tactile sign. 1. The act of establishing physical contact with one's own clothing or body parts (esp. hands to face; see HOMUNCULUS). 2. The act of stimulating one's own tactile receptors for pressure, vibration, heat, cold, smoothness, or pain.

Usage: Like a lie-detector (or polygraph) test, self-touch cues reflect the arousal level of our sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response. We unconsciously touch our bodies when emotions run high to comfort, relieve, or release stress. Lips are favorite places for fingertips to land and deliver reassuring body contact. Self-stimulating behaviors, e.g, a. holding an arm or wrist, b. massaging a hand, and c. scratching, rubbing, or pinching the skin, increase with anxiety and may signal deception, disagreement, fear, or uncertainty.

Culture. Diverse cultural gestures involve self-touching, as well. In Spain, e.g., holding a single long hair between the thumb and forefinger, and lifting it vertically above the head is a sign of "frustration." "This female gesture is a symbolic way of 'tearing your hair out' when feeling intensely frustrated" (Morris 1994:102).

Ethology. "They are called displacement activities because it was at one time thought that they are triggered by 'nervous energy' overflowing (displaced) from the strongly aroused motivational systems"

(Brannigan and Humphries 1969:408).

Evolution. Self-touch cues originated ca. 180 m.y.a. in paleocircuits of the mammalian brain. As gestures, they reveal the body's wisdom in coping, e.g., with stranger anxiety, and with the daily stress of life in Nonverbal World.

Media. Hollywood stars once seemed robotic (i.e., stiff, wooden, and "unreal") until method actors such as Marlin Brando and James Dean brought natural self-touch cues to the screen. Brando, e.g., clasped his neck as he groped for words in "The Wild One" (1954). Dean's hand-behind-head gesture in "Giant" (1956) "humanized" the actor (i.e., the squirm cue revealed his vulnerability). Earlier, in The Big Sleep (1946), Humphrey Bogart blazed a trail by fingering his right earlobe with his right hand several times while pondering deep thoughts. (N.B.: As host of The Tonight Show [1962-92], Johnny Carson's boyish tie-fumble made him seem vulnerable, approachable, and friendly.)

Observations. Because self-touch cues reveal emotions (esp. insecurity and uncertainty), they are best avoided while establishing credibility with strangers. 1. In the conference room, a supervisor massages his lower lip with his left hand as he raises his right hand to speak. 2. A child clasps her wrist as she asks mother for a piece of candy. 3. A Brazilian Indian smiles nervously and pinches his abdomen as an anthropologist takes his photo. 4. A CEO bows her head and covers her mouth with her hand as she hears low sales figures for the month.

Primatology. "The more intense the anxiety or conflict situation, the more vigorous the scratching becomes. It typically occurred when the chimpanzees are worried or frightened by my presence or that of a high-ranking chimpanzee" (Lawick-Goodall 1968:329 [also recorded in gorillas, baboons, Patas monkeys, and man "under similar circumstances"]).

Salesmanship. One signal of a prospect's skepticism: "Touching the mouth, or masking the mouth with fingers or hand" (Delmar 1984:46).

U.S. politics. 1. "[President Richard M.] Nixon's 'Hand-In-Front-of-Body' [hand] clasp [i.e., holding onto his own wrist below his belt while standing] could have been an anxiety signal" (Blum 1988:4-3). 2. "Holding her own hand [palm-to-palm, thumb-over-thumb, with her elbows flexed at 90 degrees, her upper arms adducted against the sides of her body, and her forearms pulled into her abdomen while standing], Geraldine Ferraro seems to be seeking reassurance" (Blum 1988:4-7).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. Earlobe-pulling, arm-scratching, and rubbing a worry stone, have been classed as adaptors: "residuals of coping behaviors that were learned very early in life" (Ekman and Friesen 1969:62). 2. Rubbing the face is a reaction to spatial invasion (Sommer 1969). 3. Automanipulation is a sign of "fearfulness" in children (McGrew 1972). 4. Self manipulations increase with stress and disapproval (Rosenfeld 1973). 5. Hand self-manipulations increase as Japanese subjects gaze into an interviewer's eyes, "reflecting the upsetting effects" of eye-to-eye contact (Bond and Komai 1976:1276). 6. "When excessive distraction through sensory overload occurs, as in the isolated schizophrenic patients, continuous and repetitive rubbing of one hand upon the other helps filter the overload by narrowing attention" (Grand 1977:206). 7. Motherless rhesus monkeys suck thumbs or toes, clasp themselves, engage in head-banging, and show "symptoms similar to disturbed mental patients" (Pugh 1977:200). 8. Self-orality, self-clasping, and self-grasping are common signs in motherless rhesus monkeys reared in isolation (Suomi 1977). 9. "Body-focused hand movements are arguably one of the most common types of nonverbal behavior produced by humans" (Kenner 1993:274). 10. "Tactile stimulation may also serve a calming or reassuring function when it is self-directed" (Goodall 1986:125). 11. In public speaking, the most common touch may be finger-to-hand (Kenner 1993). 12. "Unconscious face-touching gestures indicate disbelief in what is being said by the companion" (Morris 1994:31). Because the listener feels a mental conflict in voicing his disagreement, he performs "a minor act of self-comfort" (Morris 1994:31). 13. Self-clasping gestures (along with upper-body rocking for comfort [see BALANCE CUE]) are signs given by Romanian children raised in orphanages of the 1980s-90s (Blakeslee 1995).

E-Commentary I: "Baboons have a gesture called a 'muzzle wipe' in which they wipe their hand across the bridge of the nose. This is done in non-relaxed contexts. I'd describe it as their being 'puzzled' or 'ambivalent' or 'startled' or 'nervous' or 'uncertain,' etc." --Janette Wallis, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (6/7/00 9:18:31 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-CommentaryII: "I am a Registered Nurse, male, and have recently noticed a frequently repeated body motion in women that I and other male nurses work with. It occurs when a taller male gets close (within three feet) of a woman. She may or may not be the one who starts the conversation, but it is usually about a work related item, and is non-threatening in its content. Many women lean backward a little, pull the vest fronts of their uniform jackets with both hands in a forward and centering motion and then lean into the motion a little. It looks more like a defensive than an offensive gesture, but we are not sure. Can you shed some light on this?" (5/27/01 11:32:15 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary III: "I have noticed a behavior that has my attention. At a bar I noticed a young women with her spouse who was giving very little attention to her spouse. She continued to look away but would constantly twist her hair. At school during class, I watched a young 14 year old girl with approximately the same uninterested behavior doing the same thing to her hair. I would be interested your response to this behavior the hair twisting problem." (3/12/02 6:31:41 PM Pacific Standard Time) [Thanks very much for your e-mail. Yes, the hair-twisting you describe often occurs in absent-minded disengagement from partners or in self-absorbed thought. It is a form of self-touching. Both men and women use the hair-twist to space out from those around them. I hope this helps. --David Givens]

Neuro-notes. Apparently trivial self-touch gestures help us calm our nerves. Physical contact with a body part stimulates tactile nerve endings and refocuses our orienting attention inward, i.e., away from stressful events "out there." Self-touch works on the physiological principle of acupressure massage or shiatsu. Massaging the right hand, e.g., takes attention from the left, and vice-versa. Catching the thumb in a drawer, e.g., we may vigorously rub its nerve endings to compete with the brain's awareness of pain. Because the forebrain's thalamus cannot process all incoming signals at once, self-touch reduces anxiety much as it blocks pain.

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