Let’s say you take your car to your mechanic’s shop
to deal with an odd rumbling under the hood. You hand over your
keys and put in your time watching television in the waiting room.
When the mechanic returns you meet him at the counter. Now let’s
say he has to explain the repair to you with his hands stuffed
securely in his pockets.
The College of Communication’s Dr. Jürgen
Streeck is an expert in the way hand gestures function in
He probably couldn’t, says Dr. Jürgen
Streeck, associate professor in the Department of Communication
Studies at The University
of Texas at Austin. Streeck is one of the world’s leading
researchers of gesture and founding president of the International
Society for Gesture Studies. He studies the way people use and
respond to hand gestures in conversation, particularly in the workplace.
Streeck’s focus is not the conventional gestures that
may immediately leap to mind: the thumbs up or the hook ‘em
sign or traffic jam gestures that approximate a four-letter word.
gestures Streeck studies are more improvised and spontaneous. They
are the sweeping, pointing, shaping movements of the hands that
occur in conversation often without the speaker or the listener
being consciously aware of them.
“I am interested in how gesture works as a medium of communication,” he
says. “I am trying to understand how people together understand
the world in which they live and work.”
involves videotaping people in their natural environments—at
work, in conversation, in public—and
analyzing their use of gesture. Because his subjects don’t
know he is studying gesture, they move their bodies freely. Video
allows Streeck and his students to analyze body movement down to
a microscopic level. They can investigate how gesture coordinates
with language, is repeated, varies between individuals and changes
in different environments.
The videotapes prove to Streeck that
language doesn’t occur
by itself. It occurs in tandem with such bodily communication as
gaze, body posture and hand gesture. And gesture works in two fundamental
First, gesture aids the speaker in the very process of thinking.
In fact, Streeck says we do not just think with our brains. We
think with our bodies. This is critical when someone like your
car mechanic is trying to explain something physical in the world.
“Our bodies are not just anatomical structures,” Streeck
bodies are a result of our ongoing experience and involvement with
the world, which is always specific. The body of the car mechanic
is a different body than my body for this reason. Whenever his
mind turns to a practical problem, his body is there with it.”
In an excerpt from video, Hussein Chmeis,
the owner of a south Austin auto repair shop, uses descriptive
gesture to explain a carburetor repair to a customer.
fact, when Streeck analyzed videotapes of an Austin car mechanic,
he discovered that the mechanic not only gestured when communicating
with his customers or employees directly. He gestured when talking
on the telephone. When a customer needed help push-starting her
car, the mechanic made pushing movements with his hands, even though
the customer couldn’t see him.
“He thinks with his body,” explains Streeck. “So
when you see him on the phone pushing a car, it’s because
pushing a car to him is not an abstract concept. It’s a body
reaction. It doesn’t matter if he thinks on the phone or
in the presence of others. Our gestures are a background phenomenon,
not that he figures out, ‘She can’t see me, so there’s
no point in gesturing.’”
In face-to-face communication,
gesture also aids the listener. It may provide emphasis, preview
the type of speech the speaker
is about to offer or actually be used to imitate or demonstrate
something in the material world.
Your mechanic, for example, might
actually imitate the movement of the pistons when discussing your
car. This type of gesture,
which Streeck calls a descriptive gesture, helps create an image
that the listener can then understand. And Streeck has found that
this type of gesture—used in everything from casual conversation
to the review of a blueprint by an architect—is always
accompanied by the speaker glancing at his or her hands, signaling
that the listener should pay attention.
Much of gesture happens
outside of our awareness, and yet gesture and how it is organized
are critical to communication.
Two architects from the firm M.J. Neal review
plans. Streeck says that gesturing is critical in work
places where diagrams and drawings are used.
“Without gesture,” Streeck says, “I don’t
think the mechanic could do his work. I think it would be impossible
for him. He could do his work without having any contact with his
employees or his customers, but I don’t think he could have
any of that contact without gesture.”
Similarly, Streeck has
seen how an architect imagines a building by entering a space and
beginning to sculpt with his or her hands.
An engineer moves his or her fingers across a diagram to decipher
it for someone else. An artist, presenting an installation to some
government ministers, moves his or her palm rapidly down and away
from her heart when describing the work.
Communication, it turns
out, is an embodied act. Researchers believe it has been so from
the beginning. In fact, gesture is believed
to be the original form of human communication. Before writing
and even before speaking, our ancestors gestured. In some circumstances,
gestural communication is still a primary form of communication,
as seen in sign language used by the deaf or in places like Trappist
monasteries, where silence is practiced.
Even so, gesture is a relatively
new field of study, one aided by the advent of video technology.
“We came into a situation that is very much like that of
biology after the invention of the microscope,” Streeck says. “First
we had to learn how to look and what to look for, then the discoveries
began, and soon an amazingly organized microcosm revealed itself
that we would have never found with our unaided eyes.”
In these graphic representations of actual
video, two Japanese women discuss car accidents, using
gesture for description and emphasis.
is not the first time gesture has garnered attention, however.
In ancient Rome, rhetoricians were very interested in the role
of gesture in oration. The rhetorician and teacher Quintilian included
in his 11-volume text on public delivery an extensive section on
gesture. He catalogued gesture down to the smallest detail, noting
which hand shapes were appropriate for what purpose and how to
time gesture with speech. Proper use of gesture was celebrated.
is also a long history of encouraging restraint in gestures. Gestures
have been considered everything from bad manners to a
sign of evil. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was considered
essential to moderate bodily expression. An inability to control
the body was associated with sinfulness. Some of this restraint
remains in our culture. More than one mother has admonished her
child to keep his or her hands still when talking.
“The kind of delivery that is considered acceptable today is extremely
impoverished compared to what would be considered proper, for example,
in ancient Rome,” says Streeck. “Cicero and Quintilian
talk about how you sway your body to give yourself rhythm. I don’t
think you see much of that today.
“I constantly observe the gestures of politicians, and I
find them to be, quite honestly, extremely boring. Given the expressive
of the body, they are completely restrained and often unnatural.”
are still trying to understand just how much gestures are a function
of culture. They know that in most cases people
gesture more in southern Europe than in northern Europe, for example,
which is likely to be a result of Reformation . And Streeck has
videotaped people using their hands in dance and work in Bali and
found that since the Balinese typically do exercises to increase
the flexibility of their hands, the configurations of their hands
are different than in other places. Some elderly Filipino women
indicate a new episode in a story by making a palms-up gesture
that foreshadows the telling.
Still, gesture varies more from individual
to individual than does language itself. It’s not possible
to point to a particularly American way of gesturing or even a
Texan or female or ethnic way
of gesturing. In the end, your gestures may be all your own. They
are your own personal embodied identity, gathered from your own
experience. They reflect the manner in which you engage the world.
they may change over time. This is apparent when sitting down across
from Streeck, whose hands are perpetually in the air and
moving. They cast circles, sweep from left to right and punctuate
his phrases. His gestures are big and bold, but he admits this
wasn’t always so.
“I grew up in a pretty rigid northern German family where physical
expression was rare,” he says. “I finally liberated
my hands, so to speak, when I began teaching classes on nonverbal
communication and had to demonstrate what I was teaching. I realized
that I literally make more sense when I gesture, because sense
is not only found in words. I am convinced that my students understand
me a lot better when I gesture freely, because gesture communicates.”
Photos of Dr. Streeck: Marsha
Gesture images courtesy Dr. Streeck