"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his [or her] patient in the care of the human frame and the prevention of disease."
    Thomas Edison


Enter for a free trip to Tahiti

Knowing body language saves embarrassment
and improves understanding and clarity

by John Fisher

A classic photo of Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister of England, shows her fingers in a V for Victory.  The problem was she reversed her hand with her hand outward instead of showing her palm.  In England this is commonly regarded as a rude gesture, much like Americans use the middle finger as an obscenity and insult. 

So why is it important we know what gestures mean? Some scholars say that as much as 75 percent of our meaning is in our nonverbal gestures while only 25 percent is in the words.  In other words, actions speak louder than words. 

Yet, our nonverbal communication can be confusing.  This is because sometimes one code communicates a variety of meanings, and then other times a variety of codes communicate the same meaning. Sometimes we intend to say something and what we say is completely different to the receiver than what we meant to say.


A man stands inside of a closed glass phone booth. You cannot hear a word he says, but you see his postures, gestures, and facial expressions. You see his kinesics. --Marjorie F. Vargas (Louder Than Words, p. 67)

Kinesics is the study of  body movement, facial expressions, and gestures.  Five kinds of kinesics are used in our everyday communication.  These five are emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors.

Emblems are body movements that substitute for words and phrases.  We beckon with are first finger to mean “come here.”  We use an open hand held up to mean “stop.” However, be wary of emblems; they may mean something different in a different culture. 

In much of the world today, the thumbs up means, "O.K.", "Right On!", or "I like this movie.” But in Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria and parts of Italy and Greece it is an obscene insult, especially when combined with a sweep of the arms.

The second form of kinesics, illustrators, accompany and reinforce our verbal messages.  For example, we nod our head when we say yes, shake our head when we say no, stroke our stomach when we are hungry, and shake our fists when we are angry. 

Illustrators tend to be more universal than other kinds of body movement. However, they can also be misinterpreted.  Even men and women regard the simple nod differently.  Many women may think a man is agreeing when he nods his head as she speaks, but actually all he is say is “I hear you.”  When they get into a meeting together and she finds him speaking out against her idea, she may be surprised and angry, because she thought she had his support.

The third kind of kinesics is affect displays.  Affect displays are movements of the face and body which show emotion.  Consider how you react when your favorite team scores, or watch your angry teenager slam the door as she leaves the room, and look at two men threaten each other when they are upset but don’t dare to fight openly.

Regulators are the fourth category of kinesics.  They control the flow and pace of our communication.  When we start to move away, it is a signal that we want the communication to stop.  When we look away or at the floor it shows we may be disinterested.  When we yawn we are bored or maybe just tired. 

There is a whole area of study that deals with turntaking, the use of regulators to let someone know when we want to speak, when we want them to speak, or when we don’t want to speak.  When we want to speak, maybe we raise a finger or lift our head. When we want to let the other person speak, we pause and look away. When we don’t want to speak, we may nod or raise a hand.   It’s a real science, but somehow we learn all these skills without ever taking a lesson.

The final area of kinesics is adaptors.  We use adaptors to relieve tension.  We tap the desk, or twist our hair.  We shake our legs or rub our nose.  Sometimes these are nervous habits.  Others are involuntary ticks.  I found out when I stayed with an uncle that we shared some common adaptors.  He covered his mouth with a finger when he spoke, something I also did, but didn’t notice my father doing.  Yet obviously, I must have learned it from my father.

How does it help to know about kinesics?  Understanding nonverbal communication can help us communicate better.  We avoid misunderstandings.    We are clearer in the meanings we transmit.

Judy C. Pearson and Paul E. Nelson. An Introduction to Human Communication: Understanding and Sharing, 8th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

The finger http://www.ooze.com/finger/html/foriegn.html

Kinesics http://members.aol.com/doder1/kinesic1.htm

Turntaking http://www.psychcorp.com/catg/pdf/p187.pdf

Copyright December 2001

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