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Thought and Gesture: Part 1

“Where the heck is that file? I know I just had it.”

“It’s right over there.” I said pointing at the file.

Then I noticed my extended index finger aimed directly at the missing file at the point I said “there.” How had that happened? I hadn’t thought about pointing, but somehow, I had done it as part of my answer. The pointing finger is clearly understood to direct another’s gaze or attention to a particular area, but here it appeared without an apparent conscious thought on my part.

- Digital Partner -

This became a topic of conversation around the office—thought and gesture. Have you ever consciously thought about making a gesture while you were talking, or do they just happen naturally as part of the conversation? Certainly, actors plan some of their movements as part of a well-choreographed performance, but in day-to-day conversation gestures just seem to appear perfectly timed matching our words and meaning. So how does that happen, and what can we learn about the seemingly perfect natural selection of the right gesture?

Cultural Differences

People who use gestures generally fall into one of three large groups of users depending on culture and geographic regions of the globe. The groups that use gestures the least are the Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, and Denmark. Plus, you could include Asian communities such as China, Korea, and Japan who also make little use of gestures as part of their communication.

The second group makes moderate use of gestures to communicate, which may increase as they become more excited. This group includes the Russian, German, British, Dutch, and Belgian peoples.

The final group uses gestures extensively in communication, and they have historically culturally influenced others in the world. Here we think of the Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese whose language incorporates gestures heavily to convey meaning. If we take a historical perspective, you can see their influence on the communication style of those in the Middle East and South America where early colonies were under their rule.

The United States is a melting pot of people, and the gestures here vary depending on the concentration of a cultural norm. While nationality might play a part in the level of gesturing, the cultural norm is clearly more important. Common amongst all people are the basic human emotions—fear, anger, surprise, sadness, happiness, disgust, and contempt—but gestures themselves can be unique and geographically diverse.

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Gestures versus Emblems

Somehow, the gesture must be linked to thought and language in a specific way that does not require a person to consciously select and incorporate it in the conversation. The actions we take when getting ready to leave an encounter are predictive of what we are about to do. Shifting our feet and bodies, we start to turn toward our point of exit physically announcing our intention to leave. The trunk of the body moves away from the other speaker, eye contact diminishes, and we begin to collect our items, further suggesting the conversation is at an end. Sometimes these gestures and behaviors are conscious and other times not; we just do them without thinking.

For example, when we feel anxious, we may use self-touching to reassure and support ourselves. The hands may hug or touch the face or body to comfort ourselves with the emotional support we feel we need.

The term “gesture” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a movement usually of the body or limbs that expresses or emphasizes an idea, sentiment, or attitude.” The spoken language and gestures are so closely related that unless they are consciously done, they must be part of the same process. Language is a series of descriptive terms strung together to communicate an idea while the gestures add depth to them by providing emphasis and spatial characteristics to the story. One could almost think of gestures as being a picture or drawing to add dimension and context to the words.

Gestures can form pictures. He reached out (arm reaches out palm down), grabbed the pipe (hand clenches around the imaginary pipe), and swung it towards the guy’s head (arm and clenched fist swing toward new place in space).

- Digital Partner -

Gestures can add emphasis. These are rhythmic in-and-out or backward-and-forward movements that establish the important parts of the sentence. We (jabs/points down) will (jabs/points down) not (jabs/points down) let (jabs/points down) this (jabs/points down) happen (jabs/points down) again (jabs/points down ending gesture before completing word again). The regular movement adds emphasis to the language reinforcing the speaker’s anger or determination in this case.

Gestures can provide a physical location for something being discussed in the abstract. I think we have all had problems like that (gestures to right and down). The gesture right and down provides a location for the problem. How do you feel when you have to deal with that (gestures to the location of the problem to add context to the question avoiding having to restate the problem)?

Emblems are different from gestures in that they don’t have to accompany words. Emblems are physical movements that can take the place of words: a wave equals “hello,” a palm extended toward another equals “stop,” a shrug equals “I don’t know,” a shake of head from side to side equals “no,” and a nod equals “yes.” Emblems can be used at any time, but gestures almost exclusively occur only during speaking and address what is being talked about. He drew back (pulls back imaginary bowstring) the bowstring. While several gestures may be included in a sentence, the emblem is used alone to convey a meaning—the “wave hello” says it all without needing to add other signs.

While the gestures are used while the sender speaks and support the words spoken, the emblem may appear in stark contrast to the gesture, carrying a different meaning. (Shrugs) then we went over to (arm raises and points to space representing house) Jill’s house (arm drops to lap) to see her puppy. While the gestures support the words, the shrug would seem to represent uncertainty and contrast with the message of the words. The observant investigator would note this contrast in messages and explore it more fully.

Observe and Dig Deeper

While emblems can occur at any time, the gesture is strongly attached to the speech being delivered. When a person gestures, the arms and hands are perfectly choreographed, matching movements to the chosen words ending before or at the appropriate syllable, but not after the sentence is complete. When gestures do not match the words intended or emphasize or extend beyond the end of the sentence, an investigator should continue to explore these areas of concern. One of the reasons a deceptive individual’s gestures may be mistimed is because of the tension held in the muscles as the body goes through fight, flight, or freeze to defend against the threat.

The meanings of emblems also are culturally specific and can have altered understandings based on the cultural group or geographic location. But regardless of the emblem, they tend to remain stable over time because they are simple and short and therefore difficult to change. Some emblems originated thousands of years ago during the Roman Empire and are essentially unchanged today.

So when we consider gesture and thought, which comes first? The old question—the chicken or the egg? It seems as if the gesture must predate the thought’s articulation since the gesture can begin slightly before the words are expressed. Plus, as the complexity of our statements becomes more abstract, the gestures increase and are joined to the words to expand understanding and meaning intended. But while the gesture may start to evolve as the mind begins to form a thought, they are essentially formed in a single process.

So the chicken or the egg…yes. They form together. The first part of a thought is an image, which is described by language and the physical movements of the gesture. Now, we are sure that those who study speech and gestures may have disagreements with how we have described them here, but these complexities are probably outside of what we need to think about.

Gesture and thought are joined to the words uttered by the speaker allowing the gestures to add emphasis, location, and depth to the string of words. What we have noted in our interviews with those later found to be deceptive is a remarkable lack of gestures. Often these subjects seemed to be unnaturally locked down, limiting their movements and gestures. The gestures that were used seemed rapid, stiff, and mistimed with the words they had chosen. This was nothing like the effortlessly choreographed gestures of those comfortable with their stories.

When we see someone whose gestures are mismatched to their words, we should look more closely at what is being said and how before we eliminate them in an investigation.

This post was originally published March 1, 2019 and updated May 23, 2019.

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