We discussed some of the geographic differences when using gestures in other cultures in our last column. We also touched on the differences between an emblem and gesture, plus some cultural variations in emblems. Our focus here will be the view that gestures and language are created together as a single process delivered together seamlessly in a choreographed fashion to convey understanding to another.
Gestures are unconsciously created as the language is chosen to support the communication and understanding of the speaker. Gestures can have a full range of meaning that is designated by the speaker, which could be spacial, descriptive, or a motion. But the gesture itself may also reveal the internal mental image the speaker is using when describing the thought.
For example, the gestures can be almost like a diagram providing a context for the story to unfold. When we use a diagram as part of the interview, the subject uses it to convey information in a clearer way. The diagram provides a spacial context for the witness’s description of events. Pointing to a space in the room gives that topic a frame of reference to a particular place, and another gesture made to that same spot later in the conversation adds further context to what is being said.
So an interviewer might become aware the witness has pointed to a place in front of her when she says, “Jill’s house.” That point in space now represents Jill’s house. But later she says, “We had talked earlier about going to Jill’s, then stopped at the house” (pointing to a different location in front of her than she used before when referring to Jill’s house). From this sentence we might assume the house referred to was Jill’s, but then why is the gesture mismatched from the location she indicated before? It would seem the gesture indicates a physical location other than Jill’s house, and it would have been more appropriate to say “her” rather than “the” house.
On some occasions a gesture can also help the observer determine the point of view the speaker is taking when reporting his narrative. For example, Robert is known to be an ultraliberal Democrat, often espousing liberal positions to anyone who will listen. Yet when he describes a meeting between Republicans and Democrats, he says the following: “The Republicans”—gestures and touches his chest—“and Democrats separately gathered at different ends of the room.” Robert’s self-touch to his chest might indicate that he was a Republican, but this is a mismatch based on what we know about him. A more likely explanation is that he was standing with the Republicans as he was describing the two groups in the room. The self-touch here was an indication of his spatial orientation in the description instead of an indication of his political affiliation.
An interviewer can use gestures to establish the meaning of space in the interview room. Pastors often do this as they preach, indicating spatially around them where good and evil reside. Generally, the pastors use space directly in front of them to indicate goodness, and somewhere off to one side or the other is the space where evil resides. They use the spaces and their gestures to support their preaching. Interviewers in the same way can use space in the room to indicate good and bad. For us, the good space generally occupies that immediately in front of us and somewhat down. When we talk about positive things our hands are open palms up as though delivering a gift to another, while the bad space occupies one side or the other and slightly behind our bodies. Once these spaces have been identified, we can now use gestures as a subtext to indicate positive and negative aspects that we may not want to explicitly identify using our language. While offering one or another rationalization, we can gesture either to the good or bad space to provide additional meaning to what we are saying.
In general, when delivering rationalizations, we use the third person (he, she, they, them, and others) rather than the word “you,” which would personalize the rationalization to the person we are speaking to. If the interviewer personalizes the rationalization, it increases the likelihood that the subject may offer resistance or a denial if the rationalization isn’t perfectly suited to him or her. However, there is a unique use of the pronoun “you” called the impersonal you that is the informal equivalent of “one” or “people.” One (people) could say, “Why would you do that?”
The interviewer could say, “You”—interviewer touches his chest—“could say, ‘Why would you do that?’” which changes the personal pronoun “you” into the informal impersonal you. The gesture toward the interviewer indicates to the listener that the pronoun “you” is not directed at them, but rather it is being used to indicate a generic group of people performing the action. This particular usage is really a third-person usage of the word “you,” which also encourages agreement with the interviewer’s rationalization.
The gesture itself can become an object or descriptive motion and may change repeatedly during an individual’s narrative. The same can be said for the narrator’s point of view, which can be that of the person being described or as an observer. As a result, the gestures can change from those of the observer to those of the person being described as the point of view changes.
The individual’s gestures can also provide a spatial relationship like that of a map to help orient the listener to the elements of the narrative. The gestures may provide movement within or across the map to illustrate changes in location as the story progresses.
While the meaning of gestures can change and both hands can be involved in gesturing, people generally use their dominant hand to perform the gesture. The location of the gestures is also central to the trunk of the body. Most gestures will occur from the beltline to the shoulder line and outward to the width of the shoulders. Gestures associated strongly with emotions may extend outward farther from the body and appear much more animated to the observer.
On occasion, people will struggle to gather their thoughts, providing a series of false starts to the sentence, which will also affect the individual’s gestures. “The … fact … that … that … she’s … uh … she’s somehow … involved is crazy to think about.” In the previous sentence, the speaker is struggling to express a thought verbally, and it is likely that the gestures associated in this struggle would only be partly completed. For example, the hand may slowly start to rise in a series of increments matching the false starts until the gesture is finally completed at the word “crazy” when the hand touches the speakers head. This makes sense since the gestures and the language being chosen will match in a synchronized, choreographed way as the thought is completed. As the individual struggles to complete the expression of the thought, the gestures remain uncompleted until the thought is fully expressed by the words. Remember that the expression of a thought is completed only with the verbalization of the sentence and the matching gesture.
Unlike an emblem, gestures almost always accompany speech and diminish when an individual is not talking. An observer may see gestures occurring if an individual is holding a silent conversation with themselves especially if the internal conversation deals with strong emotions. One thing is clear is that gestures diminish as an individual’s fluency decreases and increases as it arrives. There is an absence or diminishing of gesturing in situations where there is no memory or when the memory has faded. By extension, this is also probably true when an individual is being deceptive or creating a fabrication since the memory actually doesn’t exist.
In studies focused on detecting deception, police officers and college students both focused on movements and eye contact as indicators of deception, while criminals focused on the lack of movement of the other party as an indicator of deception. The speaker who uses gestures is in the moment of the thought, and the gestures are included naturally. However, a deceptive individual who doesn’t have a clear picture in mind or doesn’t have an actual memory of the event being described, will have a diminished number of gestures as they narrate. In some situations, this may result in a mismatch between any gestures that do occur and the narration by the deceptive subject. When there is a mismatch between the words and the gestures, the interviewer should focus on the gesture as more likely being correct than the words chosen by the individual.
As a side note, individuals are often able to recall more details about events and increase memory retrieval when they perform gestures while repeating the story. Using the gestures as they describe the story helps them cognitively enter the moment of speaking, increasing their ability to retrieve information.
In the past two columns, we have addressed the movements and gestures associated with an individual’s words as they verbalize a thought that they have had. In our next column, we consider more general movements that aren’t necessarily associated with the expression of language.