Don’t Do That With Your Hand

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Non-verbal communication through various gestures is often favorable when traveling to countries where you don’t speak the native language. But sometimes a simple gesture can go terribly wrong.

Different cultures sometimes perceive the movements we make with our hands to have drastically different meanings than intended. For example, a thumbs up is a positive expression of approval in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Russia. However, in countries including Latin America, West Africa, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is contrarily symbolic for “up yours.”

To better understand where these customs originated and why they often remain centralized to one location, BTRtoday speaks with Dr. Michael Corballis, psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Auckland. Corballis has studied the emergence and evolution of language in relation to the asymmetry of the brain.

Corballis explains that gestures or sign language are the origins to speech. This could be the reason why young children have an aptitude towards gesturally communicating before they can talk.

“Children will naturally point to things, for example, before they have words to say them. It is fairly commonly agreed that gesturing is the beginning of language in a child, as well as evolution,” Corballis says.

Evidence suggests that the evolution of language must have been a long process, following the evolution of mankind. Language originated from gestures, and then gravitated to facial expressions, which are also important in non-verbal dissemination. The final stage of language developed a vocal component.

It is difficult to say precisely when hand movement began as a communication tool or why. Though there is about a six million year gap between ourselves and the common ancestor of the chimpanzee, further evidence of the origin appears in the neurochemistry of the monkey brain.

“If you actually look at the monkey brain and see what it’s doing, the areas that later evolved to be language areas in humans control movements of the hand in the monkey brain,” Corballis details. ”From that point of view, the parts of the brain that were involved in hand movements, not only in making hand movements but in understanding hand movements, later on in evolution became adapted for language and speech.”

Since language emerged from gestures, it is no surprise that gestures vary in cultures just as languages do.

“Gesturing is language-like in the sense that different cultures deviate from one another just as languages do, so when a gesture gets into the culture it develops its own forms,” Corballis illuminates.

Barriers, both physically and culturally, enable these differences. Languages develop in part to create a rift in what outsiders can interpret and understand. It is suspected that differences in gestures have resulted from forming such blockades as well.

“I know in Naples, for example, there’s a huge convention of gestures that people have learned, and if you’re an outsider, you can’t understand them or can’t understand a lot of it,” Corballis says. “I think there’s that aspect of culture, that it not only acts as a communication system but it acts as a barrier against outsiders.”

Italians are famous for their exaggerated hand movements, which could have root in a historical story of the country.

Corballis tells of a debated theory about an emperor who forbid talking in the streets. It could explain why Italian natives began to gesture. However, a more probable answer is that Italians have many distinct dialects compelling them to embellish with exaggerate gestures in order to maintain their identity from other forms of the language.

Some Italian cultures may replace speech with gestures or gesture along with speaking as well. These are known as “emblematic gestures” used to supplement or substitute speech. They can stand on their own without verbal communication, such as throwing up the peace sign, thumbs up, or middle finger. On the other hand, “Co-speech gestures” are unique, unconscious ways we move our hands to support vocal expressions.

Researchers believe co-speech gestures help communicators to think, speak, and learn. Physical gestures allow humans to work out thoughts and add information that our words may be lacking.

Studies have also shown an increase in memory when using gestures. For example, third-graders who gestured while learning algebra were nearly three times more likely to remember what they’d learned than classmates who did not. College students who gestured as they retold short stories were better able to recall intricate details from a narrative.

Besides being beneficial in aiding thoughts and memories, people of course use gestures if they’re deprived of speech. An obvious example is the deaf, but there’s also the instances when meeting someone from a different culture or language.

Gesturing is a natural response that has existed for many years. Sign language proves that a language entirely of hand motions can exist. However, regardless of using universal sign language, most gestures have distinctive meanings based on their development in various cultures.

It is important to think twice when using physical communication in unfamiliar environments. To be safe, stick with gestures such as saluting, bowing, and waving, all of which are globally-known forms of greeting. Otherwise, be cautious where and how you point those fingers.