A metalanguage with distinctive features, categories, and functions. The story of the man
who would not be able to talk if he could not use his hands is no joke; gestures are
essential in communication. When a multilingual person switches from one spoken
language to another, the accompanying gestures switch also. Even within the same
language, gestures vary according to context. Gestures used at a church differ from those
used at a bowling alley.
Gestures are made by articulating body parts, including limbs, torso, and face, in
isolation or in combination. Gestures are shaped by four dimensions—three spatial
extensions plus time—textured by varying dynamics. Though fleeting, gestures’ impact
exceeds the time of execution. Gestures linger in the “mind’s eye” of the receiver and
remain within the human transmitter in neurological, chemical, and cognitive ways that
are not fully understood. Gestures are kinesthetically sent but visually received. As ideas
are often clarified to both the listener and the speaker when they are spoken aloud, so
information and feelings are confirmed to both viewer and performer when they are
embodied in gestures.
The shapes of gestures are partly delineated by apparel, paraphernalia, and
environment. In some transplanted European and Mexican folk dances, women gesture
decoratively with their arms while their fingers grasp their skirts. The skirts and held
objects such as rattles are gesture modifiers. Gestures by hands that hold or manipulate
items differ from those of unencumbered hands. Bare or shod feet with, say, slippers,
boots, or sandals, differentially define the kinds and qualities of leg and foot gestures.
Likewise, whether the ground space is hard floor or soft sand affects leg and foot
Most gestures are learned. Involuntary gestures, shared universally with all human
beings include grinning, flailing, flinching, shielding, jerking, and empathic mirroring.
They are comparable to vocalics of laughing, babbling, grunting, whimpering, squeaking,
or imitative echoing.
All humans share the same potential for gestures, just as all humans are capable of
uttering the same sounds, but the range of gestures and vocalizations is species specific.
When selected, codified, and habituated, gestures and vocalizations are culture specific
and comprise a repertoire (with idiosyncratic flavorings). Even ad hoc gestures adapt
movements from the repertoire.
Gestures bridge the mind-body dichotomy. Gestures reinforce, augment, give nuances,
sometimes supplant, even occasionally nullify oral language. If someone says, “no,” but
simultaneously nods affirmatively, the gesture prevails. The cliché that actions speak
louder than words, thus, has credence.
A constant in human life, gestures are incorporated in both ordinary and extraordinary
experiences. Although all gestures are meaningful in some way, their intent differs. They
can express emotions or be emotionally neutral. They can perform tasks or be useless.
They can emphatically communicate or phatically conform. They can be spectacular or taken for granted. They can be significant by their very existence or in the breach.
Gestures can energize or be wasted. They can establish or remove boundaries. Gestures
can be communal, private, or intimate. Whatever their reasons, they are part of all human
life at all times.
Gestures function variously as signs, signals, symbols, and signatures. Gestures can
serve as punctuation, such as raised eyebrows to indicate a question. Gestures can
reinforce an idea. For example, raising the first and middle fingers to form a “V” signifies
“Victory;” lifting only the middle finger is a vulgar insinuation. Gestures can even evoke
the unseen or invite metaphysical intervention, such as lifing both hands above the head
with the palms facing up to invoke a heavenly blessing, or crossing the first two fingers
or knocking on wood for luck and protection.
Vocational gesture idioms reveal identity while affecting the course of action, such as
signaling in the stock exchange, at auctions, by umpires at baseball games, or by train
conductors to move trains. The latter is an example of changing gestures, because walkietalkies have replaced hand gestures and the swinging of a lantern.
Idiosyncratic gestures, such as nervous habits of finger tapping or hair twisting, can
become signatures of an individual. Sometimes symbolic gestures are restated in other
media. For example, in some dances Hopi male dancers hook their fingers over the
uplifted curved fingers of the dancer on either side, a gesture that expresses brotherhood.
That gesture is graphically replicated by hooked half circles drawn on a dancer with body
Whether or not a gesture consciously communicates, it can be “read,” but only by
those who are literate in the gesture code. For example, a Midwesten Euro-American who
asks a Southwestern Native American where something is may be perplexed or even
insulted when the Native American protrudes his lower lip in reply, a traditional way to
The smile is a universal human facial gesture, but the meaning ascribed to it varies by
culture, subculture, and situation. For Japanese Americans, a smile with a bow is
etiquette and does not indicate an emotion. The U.S. gestural repertoire includes smiles of
pain, irony, joy, shame, modesty, humor, cynicism, imbecility, flirtation, cruelty,
triumph, and even disassociation. Young Hawaiian and Native American women and
older Japanese American women self-consciously cover their smile with their fingertips.
Gestural greetings are made by everyone, but their expressions are culture specific.
For example, mainstream Americans associate direct eye contact and a firm handshake
with strength of character. Native Americans, however, associate direct eye contact and a
firm handshake with arrogance and disrespect. They greet each other with eyes slightly
averted and gently clasp hands or touch fingertips. African Americans and others who
wish to be “cool” alternately grasp one another’s thumbs. Members of fraternities signify
their membership with esoteric handshakes. In polite Euro-American society, a lady
proffers her hand before a gentleman extends his. Likewise, an older person initiates a
handshake with someone who is younger. Respect is shown by allowing the lady or the
older person to determine whether or not they will touch the other party.
Salutatory embraces and kisses in the United States are also determined by gender,
age, status, and cultural backgrounds. Many American women greet each other with an
embrace and a kiss on the cheek. But male-to-male, or male-to-female greetings with
embraces and kisses are selective, lest those gestures violate propriety. American men seldom greet one another with a kiss. Often they do not even kiss their own sons after
they outgrow babyhood. However, men who follow Latin traditions kiss each other
repeatedly on first one cheek then the other. Hawaiians of both sexes greet each other by
an embrace and gentle nose-to-nose touches, on first one side then the other. Older
Japanese Americans traditionally greet each other with a bow instead of physical contact.
Embodied ideas and feelings often include a complex of gestures. A person who reads
a script over the radio uses gestures even though he or she is not seen by the radio
audience. The person who wears a mask replicates the mask’s expression gesture on his
or her own face. Those invisible facial gestures accompany the visible bodily gestures.
Interactive gestures often produce empathy, as exemplified by the mother who opens her
own mouth while spoon-feeding her infant.
Some gestures need an exterior context in order to be deciphered. For example, a
forward outstretched arm with the palm of the hand facing down can be, variously, a
blessing, a request to be recognized, or a Nazi salute. In contrast, enchained gestures
often create their own context. The American Sign Language for the deaf and Plains
Indian sign language are enchained systems. Although those gestural languages are
codified, the messages are not fixed. Similar to conversational oral speech, the content is
extemporaneous, unique, and requires semantic interpretation.
However, signed messages may be stereotypical and re-dundant, especially at formal
events. With a choreographed and fixed routine, based on Plains Indian sign language,
pantomiming the song “Go My Son” is a popular performance piece for young Native
American women. Enclaves of Tibetan lamas in exile are located in several areas of the
United States. They all perform the same prayers and psalms, which interface chanting
with esoteric mudras (gestures).
Mudras are used, also, in Bharatanatyam, a Hindu dance form that is attracting many
students throughout the United States. The mudras have ascribed denotations, but,
depending on the dynamics of performance, the connotations vary. A series of
paragestures—that is, the “same” gestures modified to alter affect—can present such
diverse emotions as longing, anticipation, impatience, jealousy, and pleasure, all differing
facets of a base metaphor.
Hawaiian hula gestures interpretively illustrate the semantics of texts that
characteristically have more than one meaning—literal, double entendre, and kaona
(soul). Because specific glosses are not assigned to them as they are to mudras, hula
gestures cannot be read as a sign language. However, combined with the texts, hula
gestures teach, celebrate, and confirm the Hawaiian cultural legacy while they arouse
emotions in both the performers and the audience.
When gestures are speech surrogates, they transmit information and interpretation
without buttressing words. For example, the Yaqui Indian ritual performers called
chapayeka do not speak while they are wearing their masks. Simple pantomime
communicates basic ideas and provides comic relief. But when a chapayeka passes by a
sacred icon, such as a crucifix, he twists and shakes his hips rapidly two or three times.
That gesture causes clusters of deer or pig hooves on his belt to swish audibly. When
several chapayeka pass by a sacred icon, in single file and one after the other, the ripple
of trembling sounds reminds the onlookers of the divine metaphor.
Gestures reveal the human condition. Storytellers and actors borrow conventionalized
gestures to indicate gender, age, health, class, role, and character in their representations.
With an astute use of gestures, a storyteller can eliminate much oral exposition. Fingers
slightly separated on hands that move gracefully, a clenched fist that pounds the table,
rigid fingers that claw at the air, and trembling flaccid hands—all evoke differing images.
Within the American gesture repertoire, there are many variables, such as gender, age,
health, ethnicity, values, mores, economics, status, role, education, vocations, worldview,
attitude, circumstances, and geographical region. The gestural repertoire, as dynamic as
the United States itself, experiences timely changes with new cultural infusions,
technologies, professions, and models for living.
Despite its multivariables, there is a standard American gesture repertoire (comparable
to Standard American English but not formally acknowledged) that has been tacitly
incorporated through common usages. Consistently displayed and reinforced in the
television medium, it has become normative. Its primary antecedents are European, but
additions and modifications make it uniquely American.
Gesture studies in the United States have focused on theory and methods, specific
subcultures, and anecdotal accounts. There is no formal mapping of U.S. gestures and
gestural dialects as Desmond Morris and colleagues provided for western and southern
Europe and the Mediterranean (Morris, Colbert, Marsh, and O’Shaughnessy 1979).
Ubiquitous and important as both causes and effects in human communications,
gestures are critical to the study of folklore and folklife.
Benthall, Jonathan, and Ted Polhemus, eds. 1992. The Body as a Medium of Expression. New
Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1970. Kinesics in Context. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
Hewes, Gordon W. 1973. Private Communication and the Gestural Origin of Language. Current
Lamb, Warren. 1965. Posture and Gesture. London: Gerald Duckworth.
McNeill, David. 1992. Hand and Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Morris, Desmond, Peter Colbert, Peter Marsh, and Marie O’Shaughnessy. 1979. Gestures: Their
Origins and Distribution. New York: Stein and Day.