Basic gestures and their origins
Most of the basic communication gestures are the same all over the world. When people are happy they smile; when they are sad or angry they frown or scowl. Nodding the head is almost universally used to indicate ‘yes’ or affirmation. It appears to be a form of head lowering and is probably an inborn gesture, as it is also used by deaf and blind people. Shaking the head from side to side to indicate ‘no’ or negation is also universal and may well be a gesture that is learned in infancy.
When a baby has had enough milk, he turns his head from side to side to reject his mother’s breast. When the young child has had enough to eat, he shakes his head from side to side to stop his parent’s attempt to spoon feed him and in this way he quickly learns to use the head shaking gesture to show disagreement or a negative attitude.
The evolutionary origin of some gestures can be traced to our primitive animal past. Baring the teeth is derived from the act of attacking and is still used by modern man in the form of a sneer and other such hostile gestures, even though he will not attack with his teeth. Smiling was originally a threat gesture, but today it is done in conjunction with non-threatening gestures to show pleasure.
The shoulder shrug is also a good example of a universal gesture that is used to show that a person does not know or understand what you are talking about. It is a multiple gesture that has three main parts: exposed palms, hunched shoulders and raised brow.
Just as verbal language differs from culture to culture, so the non-verbal language may also differ. Whereas one gesture may be common in a particular culture and have a clear interpretation, it may be meaningless in another culture or even have a completely opposite meaning. Take, for example, the cultural interpretations and implications of three common hand gestures, the ring gesture, the thumb-up and V sign.
The Ring or ‘OK’ Gesture
This gesture was popularised in the USA during the early nineteenth century, apparently by the newspapers that, at the time, were starting a craze of using initials to shorten common phrases. There’ are many different views about what the initials ‘OK’ stand for, some believing it stood for ‘all correct’ which may have been misspelled as ‘oll korrect’, while others say that it means the opposite of ‘knock-out’ that is, K.O.
Another popular theory is that it is an abbreviation of ‘Old Kinderhook’, from the birthplace of a nineteenth century American president who used the initials as a campaign slogan. Which theory is the correct one we may never know, but it seems that the ring itself represents the letter ‘O’ in the ‘OK’ signal. The-,’OK’ meaning is common to all English-speaking countries and, although its meaning is fast spreading across Europe and Asia, it has other origins and meanings in certain places. For example, in France it also means ‘zero’ or ‘nothing’; in Japan it can mean ‘money’; in some Mediterranean countries it is an orifice signal, often used to infer that a man is homosexual. For overseas travellers, the safest rule to obey is, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. This can help avoid any possible embarrassing circumstances.
The Thumb-Up Gesture
In Britain, Australia and New Zealand the thumb-up gesture has three meanings; it is commonly used by hitch-hikers who are thumbing a lift, it is an OK signal, and when the thumb is jerked sharply upwards it becomes an insult signal, meaning ‘up yours’ or ‘sit on this’. In some countries, such as Greece, its main meaning is ‘get stuffed’, so you can imagine the dilemma of the Australian hitch-hiker using this gesture in that country!
When Italians count from one to five, they use this gesture to mean ‘one’ and the index finger then becomes ‘two’, whereas most Australians, Americans and English people count ‘one’ on the index finger and two on the middle finger. In this case the thumb willrepresent the number ‘five’.
The thumb is also used, in combination with other gestures, as a power and superiority signal or in situations where people try to get us ‘under their thumb’.
The V Sign
This sign is popular throughout Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain and carries an ‘up yours’ interpretation. Winston Churchill popularised the V for victory sign during World War II, but his two-fingered version was done with the palm facing out, whereas the palm faces towards the speaker for the obscene insult version.
In most parts of Europe, however, the palm facing in version still means ‘victory’ so that an Englishman who uses it to tell a European to ‘get stuffed’
could leave the European wondering about what victory the Englishman meant. This signal also means the number two in many parts of Europe, and if the insulted European were a bartender, his response could be to give an Englishman or an Australian two mugs of beer.
These examples show that cultural misinterpretation of gestures can produce embarrassing results and that a person’s cultural background should always be considered before jumping to conclusions about his or her body language or gestures. Therefore, unless otherwise specified, our discussion should be considered culturally specific, that is, generally pertaining to adult, white middle class people raised in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, North America and other places where English is the primary language.