Talking with Our Hands:
Who Uses Gestures more Frequently?
December 06, 2000
Channel surfing, writing, eating, and playing the piano: These are all activities that could not be easily performed without the use of our precious hands. Of course, our lives would be tremendously difficult without the use of our hands. All tactile activities would require a new method of execution. At least talking to one another would still be easy. Right? As much as we may believe that we can communicate successfully without our bodies, a large portion of human communication comes in nonverbal forms. Hand gesture is perhaps the most blatant example of nonverbal communication. However, is the use of hand gestures necessary for a successful conversation? If so, how frequently do we use them, and which cultures use them more than others? More interestingly, which gender tends to use this form of nonverbal communication most often in American society?
Much information is extracted from the way we use our hands when we greet one another, starting with the handshake. In the United States, an individual with a firm handshake represents a person with a strong personality, while a weak handshake does just the opposite. Furthermore, an American handshake consists of a grasp of the hand and moving the arm up and down a couple of times. In European countries, specifically in France, a handshake has one fluid movement: up then down. In addition, there is the handshake where both hands are used. This particular handshake sends a more welcoming message to the receiver. In observation, this type of handshake was used more frequently with political figures, when greeting representatives of other nations.
Culture plays a significant role when one analyzes the frequency of hand gestures used during conversation. An early study of hand gestures was performed amongst Anglo-Americans, Jews from Eastern Europe, and Italians from New York. The results showed that Americans gestured using mainly the hand and wrist, Jews gestured using the lower half of the arm only, and Italians tended to gesture using the whole arm from the shoulder down (Gallois 1997). For this investigation of hand gesture, however, the subjects were students from the University of Pennsylvania, most of which are between the ages of 17 and 22. All observations were made during informal conversations.
Before the study began, references were made to previous, intensive studies of gesture and body language. According to Arliss, all nonverbal behavior tends to be multifunctional and difficult to define (Arliss). The study of hand gestures is not a precise science, but a relative consensus based on series of observations. W. Wundt, a former researcher in gesture, made an advanced theory of gesture. He states, “Gestures themselves are nothing more than movements of expression which have been given special qualities by the urge to communicate and to understand”, (Wietz 1979). This statement makes perfect sense when pondering human behavior. Before vocal or written language even existed, humans needed a way to communicate their ideas and feelings, and gesturing seemed the easiest way to go about this problem. Now, since the advent of language, the innate desire to use one’s hands still exists, even though it is not necessary to do so all of the time.
The most important tasks in this study were organizing the types of conversations, the types of people involved, and the method of noting down the numerous varieties of hand gestures. As stated earlier, all of these conversations were informal and they took place among college aged peers. First, I only observed four particular groups of people: One male and one male, one male and one female, one female and one female, and finally, a group of males and females. Each of these groups was subdivided into two categories. There was an angry group, an excited group, and a calm group. Next, I made five general categories of hand gestures. The first was a GREETING gesture. These gestures included the obvious handshake, wave, high five, hug, etc. The second type of gesture was an IDENTIFICATION gesture. These were gestures used to describe or point out something. These gestures included movements such as pointing, and the movement of the hand to illustrate a particular idea. The third category of gesture was the MEANINGLESS gesture. This gesture included the casual waving of the hand. The fourth type of gesture was HANDS STILL. This included hands in the pocket; arms crossed, hands on the hips, fingers interlocked, etc. The last category was the ANGRY gesture which included giving “the finger” and clenched fists. Each conversation that I observed lasted from ten to fifteen minutes and I tallied each movement on a sheet. (See Appendix for format of sheet). This study was preformed twice over a period of two weeks, to obtain a generally accurate sample of male-female behavior. There were twelve cases; each studied twice.
Based on casual observations of conversations throughout my life, I hypothesize that American females are more likely to use their hands when communicating than American males. I believe that generally, females tend to be more descriptive and more observant of minor details. Thus, they tend to use their hands more often to express themselves. This is not to say however, that males seldom use their hands. In fact, some interesting aspects of male-female behavior were found during this experiment.
THE MALE vs. MALE SCENARIO
Upon tallying the results of my observations, I found that the angry and excited males used gestures very frequently. The most common topics of conversation for the “angry” males were grades, sports, and peers and professors that had upset them. For the angry males, there were no instances of the “greeting” hand gestures. The only type of body language noted was a slight nod of the head. For “identification” hand gestures, I tallied a few occurrences. Pointing with the index finger was the most frequent type of this gesture. The “meaningless” and “hands still” gesture were the most common gestures for the angry males. Males tended to wave their hands in the air, with their palms facing up. Most of the time however, they had their hands in their pockets or rubbed their foreheads with their hands. The one instance of the “angry gesture” which was when one male had his fists clenched.
The excited males showed very similar results. The only major difference was in the “greeting,” where the excited males often made some variation of the “high-five” gesture. There were no occurrences of waving or hugging between two excited males. Even though they were excited, the males frequently kept their hands in their pockets and there were very few “meaningless” gestures.
Calm and content males displayed the “hands still” gesture just as frequently as they did the “meaningless” gesture. They seemed to make some variation of the “high-five” gesture being calm just as often as they did when they were excited. The “identification” gesture was hardly used. The males observed usually stood from about two to three feet apart and their bodies were very open to one another.
THE MALE vs. FEMALE SCENARIO
In this survey there was only one case found with the angry male vs. female. According to this particular example, there were no instances of a “greeting” gesture, which was expected. With the angry couple, the female often pointed and displayed many “meaningless” gestures while for the most part; the male had his hands still or in his pocket. The only type of “angry” gesture displayed was when the female had her fists clenched. My initial hypothesis on this particular situation was that the male would show more arm movement. This is primarily because I believe that males have an innate, biological drive in which they must show dominance, even in the most subtle ways. However, in this case, the female showed greater arm movement, because the female was angry at the male.
The female made the first gesture when the excited couple greeted. In the first case, the female hugged the male and in the second case, there was no physical interaction, just a simple hand wave. During my observations, it became evident that the females were more comfortable with showing affection in public than the males were. In other words, the excited female was more likely to wave or make the first gesture when encountering the male. The excited females almost never had their hands still. However, it was not common for the excited male to have his hands in his pocket.
The results for the “calm” couple scenario were different from what I had expected. Initially, I believed that the females would display more hand gestures, especially the “meaningless” gesture in a mixed sex conversation. According to this study, the opposite was true. The calm females tended to have their arms crossed, down by their sides, or on their hips, while the males had their hands out of their pockets. Their hands were more comfortably “waving about.” Another important observation with the “calm” couple was that the female would often have her head cocked to the side when talking to the male. In studying hand gestures between a male and a female, the context of the situation is very important. The gestures displayed between two people who really like each other contrast vastly to gestures between two purely platonic friends or people who are indifferent to one another.
THE FEMALE vs. FEMALE SCENARIO
The observations of hand gestures between two angry females were very similar to what was expected. In both observations, there was a great deal of “meaningless” gestures for both females involved in the conversation, not just the person speaking. The behavior between the two females was the antithesis of the behavior between the two males.
Hugging was not uncommon between the two excited females, this being the typical gesture between tow female friends who are very excited. The “identification” gesture was also used frequently, as these girls were describing something that had happened to them. The hands-crossed gesture was seen very often between the two calm females. Casual conversation did not involve much movement of the hand except for the occasional “meaningless” gesture. The females tended to have their hands near their face, displaying a “self-adaptor” gesture. Self-adaptor gestures are gestures that involve pointing to one’s self, putting ones hands to one’s face, and clenching one’s fist. Ekman and Frisen developed the concept of “self-adaptor” gestures in 1972 (Weitz 1979).
Since it has been determined in previous studies that women hold their arms close to their bodies, it is not surprising that during the female-female conversations, many self-adaptor gestures were displayed. I believe that this general assumption holds true for the majority of cases because in conversation, females tend to be more composed. They are more protective of their bodies. Subtle action such as playing with hair or picking at fingernails can often be interpreted at signs of nervousness, but these actions came naturally in conversations in a relaxed environment.
THE GROUP OF MALES AND FEMALES SCENARIO
In this scenario, the individual gestures were more difficult to keep track of. In addition, during the two-week study, I was unable to find an angry group of males and females. The groups were small, consisting of about three to five people. However, data was found for an excited group and a calm group of males and females. In both the excited and calm group of males and females, there were few “greeting” gestures. The gestures that were found the most often were hand waves. The females of the group made the more enthusiastic hand waves than the males, and handshakes never occurred. I conclude that handshaking among American college students has become used more often for formal encounters and for encounters with older individuals. For the excited group, I noticed that there was more movement in the legs and feet than in the hands. When the hands were moving, the “Identification” gesture was displayed very often. The females within this group had a more open body position than the females observed in the Male vs. Female scenario. This is perhaps the females was not alone in the conversation and they felt more comfortable. Or, these particular females felt more comfortable with these males. The males had their hands still more often than the females did in both the excited and calm groups. There were few instances of the “meaningless” gesture.
Based on the results of this experiment, the words of Kendon, a researcher of nonverbal behavior, are applicabe. “Speech and gesture are intimately tied into a communicative whole and do not constitute separable systems.” (Weitz 1979). The concept of categorizing hand gesture is not a new one. The categories in this study vary from the widely accepted system put forth by Ekman and Frisen in 1972. These two gentlemen listed three categories of behavior: emblems, illustrators, and adaptors. Emblems can be directly translated into a word or phrase such as an A-OK sign or an obscene gesture. Illustrators accompany speech as ways to describe a particular situation or idea. Adaptors are body-focused gestures. Such gestures are pointing to one’s self, putting ones hands to one’s face, and clenching one’s fist. (Weitz 1979). Of course, Ekman and Frisen made a more intensive study that covered individuals of different ages and cultures.
One important point about gestures is that they transcend culture and gender barriers. Gesturing is a continual process. We use our hands as a tool to embellish, emphasize, and illustrate what we mean. Using our hands is also a way to express excitement, anxiety, and a plethora of other emotions. However, just as the same sounds can mean the different things in different cultures, the same gestures can also mean different things. For example, in the United States, it is usually insulting to point with the index finger while in some other countries it may be perfectly acceptable. Moreover, the magnitude of gesture can cause conflict with individuals of very distinct cultures. For instance, in Britain, large hand and arm gestures are interpreted as highly excited and dominant. Therefore, many British people may falsely believe that Italians are in a constant state of high excitement. The Italians receive the opposite impression. Many Italians may think that the British are very reserved. Because of these stereotypes concerned with gesture, A British speaker would notice and interpret a small gesture more readily than an Italian speaker would (Gallios 1997).
For this project, a quiz was administered to find out how much PENN students know about the types of gestures used in other countries. The quiz was given to twenty freshmen, all between the ages of seventeen and nineteen. Eleven females and nine males received the quiz. The quiz consisted of eight multiple-choice questions with four choices to choose from. I received eleven of the twenty quizzes distributed, five coming from females and six coming from males. Based on the responses, I made an analysis of the results. (See Appendix for quiz).
The highest possible score on the quiz was an eight and the lowest possible score was a zero. Out of the male sample, the average score was a 4.16/8 or 52%. Out of the female sample, the average score was a 3.6/8 or 45%. The average score for the total sample was 3.9/8 or 48.9%. According to this sample survey, males know a little more about globally used gestures than females. However, since the results are very similar in magnitude, and since this is a very small sample, the preceding conclusion is not absolutely valid. American males and females have roughly the same knowledge of the assortment of globally used gestures.
This survey proves that knowledge of gesture is vital in communication all across the world. Many gestures that are socially acceptable in the United States are considered taboo or even insulting in other nations. This is why when people enter foreign countries, they should try to express what they mean in words, and limit using gestures if they are unfamiliar with the customs of the country. For this reason, being knowledgeable about nonverbal behavior is vital in our lives. Just imagine a Spaniard’s reaction if an American went to Spain and gave the “OK” signal! (See quiz question # 7 in Appendix)
The study of hand gesture is perhaps the most effective amongst adolescents and young adults because gender displays are most apparent among individuals of “mating age” (Arliss). In Arliss’ article “Kinesic and Paralinguistic Aspects of Communication,” Frances, a researcher in gesture did a similar study of college students and hand gestures. Frances examined videotapes of college students and found that males displayed postures that are more expansive and a greater range of movement, particularly, leg movement. This is the same result found in this study. The women in this video had more restricted movements in the sense that they held their arms and legs close together while speaking. The biological theory for why females have restrictive upper body movements is that females instinctively want to protect soft tissue, like the breast area and pelvic region by constricting their legs and arms. On the contrary, this argument would mean that men would tend to cover their soft tissue, instead of exposing it with widened leg postures (Arliss).
Communication in this world without using gesture would be dull, and not to mention frustrating. For instance, even when we speak on the telephone, we sometimes unknowingly use gestures although we know that the other person cannot see us. We use gestures when giving directions, when teaching babies how to talk, and in a plethora of other situations. An article in the book Social and Cognitive Approaches to Interpersonal Communication states a popular belief that:
“People’s body language and communicate different messages from what people say. Many scholars presume that nonverbal behaviors are natural and, therefore, not specifically performed with the intention to be recognized as conveying communicative meanings. Detailed studies of gesture suggest that the two are highly coordinated and arise from the same computational source” (Fussell 1998).
This study has shown me many aspects of male-female behavior that supports and refutes my hypothesis, which was that American females are more likely to use their hands when communicating than American males. On average, I found that in the Male vs. Female conversations, the female was more likely to use hand gestures. However, within the same sex groups, hand gestures were used less. Perhaps in the same sex conversations, the participants felt comfortable enough with one another using words, and did not resort to using hand gestures to clarify their ideas. To my surprise, in the group conversations, the males were found to use their hands more often than the females.
The study of hand gesture is very sensitive to context. I made sure that all the conversations were informal. However, I could not know precisely how the individuals felt about one another. I can imagine that if this study was done between strangers or people who did not know each other very well, the results would be quite different. As long as we continue to interact with others, nonverbal communication will continue to be an integral part of our lives. Only by studying and observing our own nonverbal behavior and the behavior of others, can we obtain a fully intelligible view of our society.