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Manual Dexterity: Your distinct hand gestures can extend the reach of your communication

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.

Jurgen Streeck

The College of Communication’s Dr. Jürgen Streeck is an expert in the way hand gestures function in conversation.

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. The 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.”

Streeck’s research 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.

Women in prayer

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 ways.

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 says. “Our 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.”

Hussein Chmeis

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.

In 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, so it’s 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.

Painter holding paintbrush

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 review plans

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.

Priest at prayer

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.”

Two women discussing car accident, woman telling story sits with hands held toward her body
Two women discussing car accident, woman sits with hands held out, palms up, facing second woman on sofa
Two women discussing car accident, woman with hands pointing out leans toward second woman on sofa

In these graphic representations of actual video, two Japanese women discuss car accidents, using gesture for description and emphasis.

This 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.

There 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 abilities of the body, they are completely restrained and often unnatural.”

Researchers 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.

Balinese dancer

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.

And 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.”

Vivé Griffith

Photos of Dr. Streeck: Marsha Miller

Gesture images courtesy Dr. Streeck

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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