In this third chapter we examined and compared the various influences on body language: genetic, learned and cultural. We found that in terms of genetics we all show similar roots and so display similarly across cultures, but that learning does play a role in how we might signal. We also covered emblems, illustrators, affect displays, adaptors and regulators which all form a part of what is called kinesics or how nonverbal behaviour relates to movement. Emblems, we found, are quotable gestures that are culturally specific which can be used as replacement for words and have a direct verbal translation. Illustrators are a second type of gesture that we use while speaking to help us paint a more descriptive picture such as talking about a boxing match and using a punching motion. Affect displays is nonverbal language that reveal our emotional state such as smiling or frowning and adaptors are movements or gestures that are used to manage our feelings or control our responses such as postural changes. Sometimes these adaptors have hidden meaning, but other times they do not, so caution is warranted. Regulators on the other hand control turn taking and flow when people speak with one another. Finally we covered high and low context cultures as it relates to touching and the ways various cultures meet and greet one another.
The final type of gestures are called regulators because they are used to modulate and maintain the flow of the speech during conversation. Essentially, we use regulators to control turn-taking in conversation and they can take the form of kinesic such as head nods or nonkinesic such as eye movements. Regulators are different across cultures more so than any other element of body language discussed thus far.
In a study by Marjorie Vargas in 1986, it was noted that black students in the United States felt insulted by the white educators. The educators weren’t picking up on cues that the students understood what was being instructed. For example, the white students would nod and murmur “uh-huh” but the black students would nod much less and use “mhm” instead. The teachers took this to mean that the students didn’t fully understand the material, but this wasn’t so, they just expressed their understanding differently.
In Japan, the up and down nod of the head or “yes motion” is utilized not to show ‘agreement’ but to show ‘understanding’. Therefore, while pitching a new idea or venture, it would be foolish to think that the continuous head nodding by the Japanese was do to their willingness to invest. Creating a simple dos and don’ts list is not feasible for these nonverbal kinesics in speech for the simple fact that there are far too many to list and the variation of meaning across culture is so varied. With the simple awareness of emblems, illustrators, affect displays, adaptors and regulators the incidence of misinterpreting their meaning can be reduced.
Caution is therefore important when dealing with international business so as to avoid any harm in interpretation. Some other examples of regulators include putting the hand up to signal that you are ready to speak, putting the finger up to the mouth to bring silence, waiving the hand around in a circle so as to speed things up, rolling of the eyes showing disapproval, a gasp to show shock, throwing the hand to someone to include them in the conversation, or shaking the head disapprovingly. All these gestures control the flow and pattern of speech by directing, disapproving, speeding things up or slowing them down, and even cutting the speaker short.
Using regulators in speech is necessary to create seamless turn-taking and to avoid appearing rude, dominating or frustrating the people you are talking with. It prevents having to interrupt, eases the flow of speech and allows everyone to make the points they wish to make without having to cut each other off mid-sentence. The net effect of a good conversation is connectivity through the creation of seamless turn-taking.
The “C” gesture: Used in Mexico to signal a desire to interrupt the speaker or in North America used by television producers to indicate the need to break for a commercial. It’s origins stem from a Mexican television presenter Raul Velasco in the program Siempre en Domingo (meaning “Always on Sunday”). It was first used behind the scenes, but because Velasco, the host, used it on camera, it spread across the main population and to some extend across the rest of Latin America.
The benediction gesture: Done by raising the right hand with the ring and little finger touching the palm and the index and middle pointed upwards. It was used in Ancient Roman times during speaking by emperors to symbolize a charm or blessing. In Sicily it declares that someone is dead.
Payment gestures: In America the payment gesture is performed by placing the index finger and thumb together then doing a writing motion in the air as if to sign the name on the bill. In Egypt, a request for the bill is signaled by holding the left hand out palm up and tapping the left hand palm down against the left wrist. In Thailand payment is indicated by making a circling gesture in the air whereas in the Philippines one draws rectangles in the air.
Thumbs up: Performed by rolling the fingers together against the palm then extending the thumb up. It has different meaning across the world. To Europeans, it means “one”, to Australians performed with a upward motion it is a rude gesture, saying “sit on this”, in Greece it is thrust forward and is equally rude, and carries equally sexual insults in Africa, Southern Europe and the Middle East, while in Japan in means “man” and “five”. While the meaning of the thumbs up gesture has been shown to have changed over time, it was first postulated to have had a Roman origin through a 19th century painting by artist Jean-Léon Gérôme where a triumphant gladiator stands over a fallen enemy seeking a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” demanding a verdict, to kill or not. However, author of Manwatching Desmond Morris claims that the true ‘spare him’ signal was actually made by tucking the thumb inside the fist.
Fig sign: The fig sign is made by first making a fist then thrusting the thumb up between the middle and index finger until it pokes through slightly. It can also be done by putting the thumb through the ring and middle finger. This gesture can mean everything from a good luck charm and fertility as in ancient Rome to an obscene gesture which is the case for Greece, Indonesia, Turkey, Cyprus and Russia. Where it is an insult, it is the equivalent of “screw you” where the thumb represents the clitoris. The sexual connotations dates back to ancient Rome and is referred to in Dante’s Inferno as a curse against God followed up with the “fig” gesture. Today, Americans will use this gesture to symbolize the taking of a child’s nose, as in “I got your nose”, with the thumb in this instance representing the nose.
The little finger: Performed by raising just the little finger upward with the remaining fingers clenched into a fist. In Bali it means “bad”, in Japan “woman”, South America “thin”, France “you can’t fool me!” and Mediterranean “small penis”.
Emblems or “quotable gestures” are those gestures that are culturally specific which can be used as replacement for words. That is, the gestures have a direct verbal translation. Obviously these gestures will mean different things in different settings and can range from complimentary to offensive. Studies show us that people lower in socioeconomic status gesticulate, which is the action of using gestures while talking, more often than those with higher status. Usually this is tied directly to education, and those who have a higher level of schooling also have a larger vocabulary so instead of using gestures to express themselves, they use words instead.
The middle finger is an obvious gesture to Westerners and so too is the peace sign (or V-sign) which can also mean victory. However, George Bush senior was famously ridiculed for “flipping” the V-sign as he was met with Australian onlookers. In their culture the same gesture is considered an insult. The V-sign where the palm faces outward has long been an gesture meant to insult but not just in Australia, also in England and the rest of the United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of France.
The “hook ’em horns” where the index finger and little finger are extended and the remaining fingers held down with the thumb is poplar to University of Texas Longhorn fans, but when directed to a married Italian man, means that his wife is having an affair. In North America, the “thumbs-up” gestures can mean “great” or “I need a ride” but for Greeks the gestures means “up yours” and is accompanied by a rapid upward and slower downward motion. Another gesture that has multiple cultural meaning is the “OK” sign where the thumb and index finger come together to make an “O” shape with the remaining fingers flared out. In Western cultures this means that things are “A-OK” but in Russia or Turkey, it describes a sexual insult, specifically identifying an orifice. These select few emblems illustrate the importance of cultural context when it comes to gesturing. Since the signals have a direct verbal translation that varies from region to region, it is paramount when one travels, to make note of these differences to avoid a potentially damaging misunderstanding.
Gestures are used in speech to convey information more efficiently or to express attitudes or emotions and as a body language reader they give us clues as to the speakers mental framework from which they speak. Beneficial byproducts of gestures include making speech occur more smoothly and increased liking between speakers and listeners. In the following section we will cover “kinesics” which is the subclass of nonverbal body language that is related to movement. Kinesics is probably the most talked about and most common type of body language but also the most easily confused cross-culturally.
The first full length study on gesture was published in 1644 by John Bulwer. He catalogued dozens of gestures and produced a guide on how to increase clarity and eloquence in public speaking. Further research has shown that some gestures are universal and therefore have ubiquitous meaning across cultures, while others only have local meaning. Other gestures are context specific so mean one thing in one place and can mean something entirely different elsewhere. Pointing, made by extending the index finger and balling up the rest of the hand for example, is one of the gestures that has the same meaning everywhere, but the okay-sign made by touching the index finger to the thumb and flaring out the remaining fingers, as we shall see later, does not.
Some cultures also tend to gesture, called “gesticulation” when used in speech, more or less often than others. For example, Italians are known to use a lot of gestures in speech whereas the English tend to use gestures infrequently. The English culture, on the other hand, deems high rates of gesticulation as being impolite. The high gesture cultures include Hebrew, French and Spanish.
The more social way for us to use our hands is to use them in concert with what is being said, although taken to extremes like the Italians, or lack thereof like the English, can be counterproductive. A balance between the two, will be the best case. The hands and arms add to the dialogue and liven it. Keeping your hands to your sides or your arms crossed tightly might be comfortable, but those that use their hands moderately while speaking appear intelligent and honest when viewed by others. Universally, closed posture come off as negative and anti-social no matter what kinds of truths spoken or positive feelings intended by the speaker. This is why it’s so important to be conscious of our gestures because even if we aren’t, others will be. Whether or not others bring closed body language to consciousness, is not relevant. Our impressions are created in others passively with no active thinking.
The various gestures have been broken down into five categories: emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators which we cover next.
If you spend time traveling or do business in more than one country then this chapter will prove invaluable. Not all body language happens the same way all over the world. To some this revelation gives them ammunition against body language because they say that since it is not totally universal, it is not innate and therefore not predictive, however this is not so. While some body language crosses culture, other language does not, what is important though, it to know which is which. We will spend the following chapter looking at how body language varies from region to region and hence from culture to culture and you will see that some body language is learned while some innate or genetic.
As we progress we will look at how emblems, illustrators, affect displays, adaptors and regulators add colour to our language and as how to use them. We will also discuss how these facets of body language vary across regions. The two take-away messages from this chapter is that it is the sender that determines the accuracy of the message no matter what the culture, and that it is up to you to decide what it means, and that it is the culture in which we find ourselves which dictates what’s normal. In this context, normal is what tells us how we should comport ourselves. We will see that our innate body language dictates our culture, that some gestures are universal (and some are not) and that touching preferences and desire (or tolerance) to closeness is learned. Finally we will cover the ways in which cultures meet and greet one-another.