“The gesture is the thing truly expressive of the individual – as we think so will we act.” Martha Graham

According to the Oxford Online Dictionary, the noun form of the word, gesture, means a manner of carrying the body; bearing, carriage, deportment. [1] It is also an action performed to convey one’s feelings or intentions or an action performed for show in the knowledge that it will have no effect. The word gesture derives from the Latin word gerere, which means "to do," and the Latin word gestra meaning of action. [2] The verb form of the word means to make or use gestures, to gesticulate. [3]

Adam Kendon, a respected scholar in the study of non verbal communication, defines gesture as visible body actions that may be used in conjunction with spoken expressions or as alternatives to them. [4] Gesture can be a natural form of expression or may be shaped by cultural codes. “For an action to be treated as a gesture it must have features that make it stand out as such.” [5] He believes speech and gesture can combine to form utterances or a combination of movements that communicates meaning. Thus, it appears that a gesture must be noticed by a receiver in order for it to be considered a gesture.

Gesturing may be accomplished with any part of the body. In Western culture, hands and facial gestures appear the most prominent, but stance, and general body language may also be considered a gesture. Moreover, gestures may include movements with objects or even be displayed within a piece of media. Non-verbal movements are important issues when studying communication because they are often observed and remembered long after what has been said is forgotten. Moreover, theorists believe gestures provide clues to how cultures act and respond to each other.

Physical gestures may be used in conjunction with auditory language such as moving one’s hands to convey an idea or by themselves such as a swing of the arm to motion a person through a door. Gestures are sometimes used voluntarily in cases where a person is conscious of the action they are performing. Other times, gestures occur without conscious thought and appear as natural actions. However, some scholars such as Weston LaBarre believe there is no natural language of emotional gesture. He contends that gestures are products of culture, which explains why one gesture may mean two very different things in different cultures. [6]

In addition, facial expressions and movements account for a large part of bodily gestures. “The face receives more visual attention from the other person than any other part of the body.” [7] Facial gesturing is therefore a large part of human communication. Facial movements, at times, do not always correspond to what is being said by a person. In these cases, gesturing is not meant to supplement words, but may contain a different meaning altogether. Deciphering why and how people use facial and bodily gestures to communicate is a current topic being explored because, while gestures have different meanings in different cultures, they are used by all kinds of people. This phenomena has left some to ask if there is such thing as a “natural gesture” or if all non-verbal communication is learned in some way.

“Gestures participate in communication, yet they are not part of a codified system,” according to Susan Goldin-Meadow "Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think." [8] According to Goldwin-Meadow, who has studied gestures for over 30 years, a thumbs-up or ok sign used in Western culture is not a gesture, but rather an emblem of a gesture because it doesn’t depend on speech. Emblems, instead, are translatable actions on their own that are most frequently linked to words. [9] Emblems too vary by culture, but unlike gestures, they have clearly marked definitions. Gestures on the other hand are meant to convey meaning by themselves or in combination with words, but do not represent a particular word on their own. Instead, they indicate emotions or a connotation. They may reference a broad idea or signal an action. Ordinary actions such as pouring a cup of coffee may turn into a gesture if it is noticed by someone else to be in some way unique, out of the ordinary, or expressive in manner. Such actions do not distinguish a single word with a clear definition.

A gesture may also be considered an act or a remark made as a formality or as a sign of intention or attitude. [10] This definition applies to the acts such as sending flowers when a friend’s loved one has died as a gesture of sympathy. Moreover, the common phrase, “noble gesture” often fits into this category. An act that has a certain intention perceived to hold great integrity and possibly sacrifice may be called a “noble gesture.” An example would entail someone giving up their seat on a crowded bus.

A gesture also indicates a pointing or indicating in language, style, or arrangement. For instance, a novelist may be described as gesturing to another well-known writer by using a similar written pattern. An artist may represent a gesture through pictorial representation or also through arrangement or color choices, harkening those of a previous work or object. Art critic, Michael Fried, believes that an artistic work, must imitate the "efficacy of gesture" and express meaning through its anthropomorphic qualities for it to be considered a true work of art. Fried argues art should show and understand the way body creates meaning. [11]

Gestures may be contingent on the cultural and historical understandings of the meaning of a bodily movement. In his text, Studies in Iconology, Erwin Panofsky describes a scenario of a man lifting his hat towards another man. In many Western cultures, this gesture is perceived as a greeting; however, in other places and during other time periods, a tip of the hat did not contain the same meaning. [13] Panofsky uses this example to demonstrate how a body movement may speak to another person and reveal intrinsic meaning beyond the form of an arm raising above a head and lifting an object that had previously sat on top of that head. In Panofsky’s example, the gesture includes more than the motion of lifting the hat; meaning resides in how the man lifted the hat. The man’s stance, his facial expression, and the pace of his movement, all combine to signal expressional qualities.

Gestures, while extensions of the body and media themselves, are often used in other mediums such as music. New scholarship suggests ways in which music and gesture coincide. Sometimes called musical gesture, the idea refers to movements which manipulate an object, such as an instrument, empty-handed movements, and observable body motions. For the study of musical gestures, the gestures may be intentional or unintentional, expressive or syntactical. [14] Some scholars attribute the way a musical performer breathes as part of a gesture in a particular performance.

In the realm of dance as a medium, choreographer Martha Graham has been said to have transformed gesture. Her innovations centered on the idea that the way people move tells something personal about them. She sought to “theatricalize body language” by getting rid of ornament and letting the body narrate an inner life. Although she was working with dance, she tried to show character through gesture. For Graham, gesture is a movement that is true to a person’s internal spirit. [15]

Poems are also considered communicative utterances that express meaning. Although they are not gestures in themselves, poems may be used to gesture toward some idea or emotion. The meanings of many gestures are commonly questioned daily. What does a certain hand wave mean for example? Decoding gestures can be a tricky task. This is something people do everyday without much notice.

In his book, Fate of a Gesture, Carter Ratcliff discusses Pollock’s movements as he painted as gestures. In this case, Pollock’s movement in painting leaves permanent or semi-permanent visible evidence of his actions. What happens to this evidence or Pollock’s artwork, Radcliff determines is the fate of Pollock’s gesture. Moreover, Radcliff describes Pollock’s movements as a behavior in which the artist is completely comfortable. He suggests then that Pollock’s gestures stem from his demeanor and are a natural physical reaction of his persona. [16]

Some gestures, for humans, occur subconsciously. A smile, for example is a type of gesture that develops across the face. This gesture, however, contains a myriad of meanings. One could smile out of happiness, spite, or even to hide a darker emotion. There are other times when a smile may form on a face unconsciously. Gesture, then, may be either deliberate or it may occur without realization. In addition, gestures may appear confusing. A face may seem to be expressing several gestures at one time.

Studies on gestures have revealed that there is a link between gestures used by people capable of hearing and signs used by deaf people. “Forms of expression in gesture have much in common with certain forms of expression in primary sign languages.” [17] In one study, once participants were not allowed to use speech, such as in the game Guesstures, they formed a lexicon of gestural forms which they used in gesture sentences consistently. Actions become symbolic not only to indicate objects, but also ideas of things. Like words, they are then combined in sequences. [18]

Gestures are important to communication both for speaking and in instances where speech is not used. Gestures can be used on their own, but studies show that when people are forced to use only gestures they tend to use them much like language, constructing phrases. [19] In this way, gestures appear as movements that are always referring to another object, idea, or emotion. While they can be used without speech, they continue to be affected by language and cultural conventions.

Marcia Friel
Winter 2007