A wink and a nod

Okay, I admit that I use gestures sometimes -especially when I am at a loss for something better to do, or can’t find the right words. I just have to be careful to use the correct ones, otherwise I’m back to words again. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes get tired of talking. And anyway, the people standing around often stop listening, so I need a backup plan.

My personal favourites are pointing and nodding; unlike vocabulary they don’t require much research and the prep time is negligible. Still, overly limited gesticularies can quickly become stale to the gesticulees, so to nourish a recipient it is important to have several arrows in the quiver. They are how we are judged in the end. As no less a luminary than F. Scott Fitzgerald has remarked, ‘personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.’

Admittedly, some of mine need a bit of work -I sometimes put the wrong finger up when I’m mad, and I’m terrible at twinking my eyes. Of course, I’ve never been able to wink convincingly either, so maybe it’s genetic.

At any rate, I’ve always thought that gestures were pretty universal. I mean, how could pointing ever go wrong? Or yawning, for that matter… or is that a gesture? Anyway, everybody knows what they mean. So it was with no little surprise and considerable embarrassment that I happened upon an essay by Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist in the department of Psychology at the University of Chicago: https://aeon.co/essays/from-pointing-to-nodding-is-gesture-a-universal-language  I suppose it was where I first realized that my personality could, in all probability, be found wanting.

‘The notion that gesture is a natural mode of expression – one that transcends the contrivances of culture – is a very old one. In 95 CE, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that ‘though the peoples and nations of the earth speak a multitude of tongues, they share in common the universal language of the hands’… It emerged in different guises: some would invoke it in speculating about the evolutionary origins of language, others in advancing proposals for a gesture-based lingua franca.’

So far, so good, I thought as I skipped over the words I didn’t understand. The problem, though, was that it seemed that nobody had carefully compared communicative hand-use across different cultures. In fact, ‘Systematic gathering of data about bodily communication would not begin in earnest until the mid-19th century.’ Unfortunately, in those days they lacked enough precision to draw any worthwhile conclusions; nowadays, technology has remedied that to a large extent.

And what have we learned? Well, first of all, everybody seems to gesture, but it doesn’t always mean the same thing between cultures -and different gestures (called emblems in the business) may be used by different cultures. Some emblems that we, at least in North America, take for granted like, say, the okay gesture, made by forming a ring with the thumb and index finger, is perfectly benign in the US but a provocation elsewhere. Or an equally benign gesture: in Bulgaria ‘an up-and-down head movement is used for ‘no’ and a side-to-side movement for ‘yes’.’ What were they thinking?

Perhaps the answer lies in the origin of gestures themselves -although how could anybody know for certain how they arose? ‘As Darwin observed, the familiar headshake for ‘no’ could stem from the act [as in infant] of turning the head to the side to refuse food. This turning-away then might get stylised, becoming the repetitive headshake that we recognise today. The nod might then develop to form a contrast with the shake – opposite motions for opposite meanings.’ Too simplistic? Too reductionist? Well, Darwin had probably never met a Bulgarian when he wrote that. Neither have I, for that matter.

Anyway, ‘Many cultures also have back-up bodily signals for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. English speakers, for instance, will sometimes negate with a side-to-side waggle of the index finger (perhaps a manual imitation of the head shake).’ I intend to try that in a Bulgarian restaurant some time to see what happens. I also intend to sit by the door.

But it turns out that ‘not only do all cultures have gestural signals for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, all cultures produce their primary versions of these signals with movements of the head.’ And everybody points. But before we enter that in the lingua digita, consider that ‘pointing is far from a monolithic behaviour. In some places, it is taboo to point with the left hand; elsewhere it is a no-no to point to rainbows. Among the Arrernte of Indigenous Australia, you would encounter index-finger pointing, but also pointing with other handshapes that are used for distinct purposes. The ‘horned’ hand, for instance, is used for pointing out a general direction of travel, but not for pointing to people.’ I’m glad I don’t travel much anymore.

And other things about pointing would single me out in some places. ‘indigenous cultures the world over have conventions for pointing with the face. One method is to protrude the lips while you look toward some target of interest. Another is to scrunch the nose.’ I do that a lot, I’m afraid, but more as a prelude to scratching than anything else.

The article goes on like a sort of cultural reliquary of oddities, but with the caveat that those things only seem odd to us. That may be true, but I do have to wonder about the validity of some of the other gestures that Cooperrider comments on. ‘Everyone points,’ he insists, and yet ‘nowhere as far as we know do people favour pointing with their elbow or ‘index toe’.

Really? Well, when she was young, my daughter used to point with her elbow when she was sulking; occasionally she would even execute a foot-point, although she may or may not have differentiated it into big or little-toe. The stage didn’t last, fortunately, but as a parent, you get used to these things. I knew perfectly well what she meant. In fact, I remember I started to point to things with my elbow around that time as well -until my wife told me to stop being a child.

Actually, that was the whole point of it, though. My daughter understood me…


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