Off the Map: Hand gestures

Throughout history, human society has found all sorts of ways to communicate with one another. Probably the most obvious form that comes to mind is the one with which this magazine is chiefly concerned, the written and spoken varieties of human language. Yet as most of us are aware, ideas, stories, thoughts and feelings can all be conveyed in nonlinguistic ways. Perhaps because of its physical versatility and natural role as an additional outlet of human expression, the hand has accumulated a diverse vocabulary of its own that is as complex and diverse as many written languages.

Communication via the hands is as old as humanity itself; it’s as much an innate part of our mechanics as is our vocalized speech. As such, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the gestural component from the vocal because they’re so often observed as one combined act. Yet perhaps not too surprisingly, the study of human gestures also has a long history. We know that even as far back as ancient Rome, the use of hand gestures in rhetorical discourse was studied and catalogued because the motion and position of the hands were considered vital to conveying meaning. And of course on a more visceral level, during the same time period, we’re aware of the infamous thumbs up or down gesture used by the crowds in the Roman coliseum to indicate their desire to see a victim spared or killed.

A plethora of studies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries confirmed that hand and arm gestures aren’t just a secondary effect of verbal communication but in many contexts are an integral part of the process of understanding. Today, there are groups such as the International Society for Gesture Studies (ISGS) that are wholly dedicated to this particular area of study. While the spoken word alone can convey meaning, many studies within and beyond the ISGS have demonstrated that when coupled with hand gestures, the comprehension was almost universally faster and clearer.

It’s not a surprise then that alternatives to spoken language are not a recent phenomenon. For example, research shows that as far as back as the sixteenth century when Europeans interacted with Native Americans, the latter were observed using a type of sign language (known now as Plains Indian Sign Language) that facilitated communication between tribes with different languages. As we all know now, this use of hand gestures as a primary form of communication evolved into mainstream alternatives such as American Sign Language in the nineteenth century and remains widely in use today among hearing-impaired individuals. And in work environments where hearing is difficult or impossible, all kinds of hand and body signals are often employed — such as the many gestures used by operators on the flight decks of airports, naval aircraft carriers and so on.

Because the nonverbal realm of gestures is so complex and geographically variant, it’s no surprise that the term body language is often used to describe the meaning conveyed by parts of the human body, because like spoken and written language, its complexity and diversity are vast. Hand gestures are actually considered just a subset of body language, as it entails other factors such as facial expressions, body position, motions by the arms and legs, and so on.

The space here is insufficient to fully describe the intricacies of gestures, and there is a very extensive range of hand gestures across cultures, even for expressing the same concept. But let’s at least take a look at some examples of common hand gestures and explore their meanings. Since I already mentioned this one, let’s take a look at the thumbs up gesture. While it has a centuries old usage, its popular use in the United States as a positive affirmation can be traced to World War II. As historical research has implied, the American fighter pilots who were based in China in the early days of the war adopted the local Chinese custom of using the thumbs up gesture as a sign of respect to convey “excellent” or “you’re number one.” The pilots used the gesture on the airfields to indicate a plane was “good to go” for takeoff, and it readily spread as a generally positive gesture for a variety of contexts. The gesture spread among American forces and was used later in Europe and elsewhere. And of course now it’s an almost universal gesture in the United States to convey a positive feeling, while the gesture is used independently in many other countries.

However, as with most gestures, for every positive usage there’s inevitably a negative one used in some cultural and/or geographic context. Despite the fact that global media spreading from the United States has popularized the thumbs up as a more positive gesture, in many Middle Eastern countries the sign can be basically the equivalent of the middle finger or “up yours!” This is also true in various locales in South America, West Africa and the Mediterranean region. In India, the thumbs up can have both positive and negative meanings, but it depends on a very specific context. When used with a wagging motion, it can be seen as a sign of disapproval. It’s also negative when used with a specific word insult. At the same time, there’s a popular Indian soft drink called Thums Up that uses the thumbs up symbol in its logo. In the history of software, the thumbs up icon has often been used to indicate something positive, such as the popular use on Facebook to indicate a “like” of a post.

Another often-used but problematic gesture is showing the palm, whether the fingers are open or closed. This is yet another often-employed software icon that is usually intended to mean warning or stop. However, in some cultures, the palm gesture can be yet another sensitive signal. With the fingers open, it’s known as the moutza gesture and is the general equivalent to the middle finger — with some regional variations, all of which are negative. Used in certain contexts (Figure 1), the gesture might be quite a shock to people who hail from locales in which it carries an offensive meaning.

In the United States and its popular culture, the display of a fist with the index and pinky fingers extended is widely recognized as the “Rock on!” gesture (Figure 2), meant to more or less symbolize the sentiment “Long live rock and roll!” And even more specifically, in Texas it’s readily considered to be the symbol of the University of Texas, mimicking their longhorn cattle mascot. However, in Italy this gesture is known as the corna and is an insult flashed to convey that the target’s wife is being unfaithful. It has similarly negative connotations in the Iberian peninsula, in the Baltic states and in parts of South America as well.

Obviously I could go on and on with various examples of hand gestures, and as illustrated, it’s very likely that every one of them will carry both positive and negative meanings, all entirely dependent on the specific cultural and geographic context. The bottom line in regard to gestures is that the vast unpredictability of potentially sensitive contexts should be enough for those dealing with such content to take pause and reconsider the use of gestures as viable nonverbal cues for icons, symbols and so forth. I’ve stated this previously in this column some years back but I think it bears repeating here: do not use gestures or other forms of body language in your content design without fully understanding the local market expectations for interpersonal contact and body language. Of course, the absolute safest approach is to simply avoid using gestures of any kind to convey nonverbal meaning.

If your end purpose absolutely requires hand gestures, then ensure that they are those representations that can find nearly universal meaning across locales. Or, if the content is to be locally tailored, then a specific gesture may be more easily leveraged since it will be confined to the appropriate cultural context. I realize that given our shared humanity and universal familiarity with gestures, it may seem odd to treat such a common thing as a form of content risk on par with maps, flags and so forth. However, in the broader scheme of business activity, marketing and establishing a global brand presence, the risk exposure via misperception can be potentially significant.