Gesture : prime visual signal of human behaviour


A gesture is any action that sends a visual signal to an onlooker. To become a gesture, an act has to be seen by someone else and has to communicate some piece of information to them. It can do this either because the gesture deliberately sets out to send a signal-as when he waves his hand-or it can do it only incidentally-as when he sneezes. The hand-wave is a Primary Gesture, because it has no other existence or function. It is a piece of communication from start to finish. The sneeze, by contrast, is a secondary, or Incidental Gesture. Its primary function is mechanical and is concerned with the sneeze’s personal breathing problem. In its secondary role, however, it cannot help but transmit a message to his companions, warning them that he may have caught a cold. term ‘gesture’ to the primary

Most people tend to limit their use of the form the hand-wave type-but this misses an important point. What matters with gesturing is not what signals we think we are sending out, but what signals are being received. The observers of our acts will make no distinction between our intentional Primary Gestures and our unintentional, incidental ones. In some ways, our Incidental Gestures are the more illuminating of the two, if only for the very fact that we do not think of them as gestures, and therefore do not censor and manipulate them so strictly. This is why it is preferable to use the term ‘gesture’ in its wider meaning as an ‘observed action’.

A convenient way to distinguish between Incidental and Primary Gestures is to ask the question: Would I do it if I were completely alone? If the answer is No, then it is a Primary Gesture. We do not wave, wink, or point when we are by ourselves; not, that is, unless we have reached the unusual condition of talking animatedly to ourselves.

Incidental Gesture: Mechanical actions with secondary messages

Many of our Incidental Gestures provide mood information of a kind that neither we nor our companions become consciously alerted to. It is as if there is an underground communication system operating just below the surface of our social encounters. We perform an act and it is observed. Its meaning is read, but not out loud. We ‘feel’ the mood, rather than analyze it. Occasionally an action of this type becomes so characteristic of a particular situation that we do eventually identify it as when we say of a difficult problem: ‘That will make him scratch his head’, indicating that we do understand the link that exists between puzzlement and the Incidental Gesture of head-scratching. But frequently this type of link operates below the conscious level, or is missed altogether.

If a student props his head on his hands while listening to a boring lecture, his head-on-hands action operates both mechanically and gestural. As a mechanical act, it is simply a case of supporting a tired head-a physical act that concerns no one but the student himself. At the same time, though, it cannot help operating as a gestural act, beaming out a visual signal to his companions, and perhaps to the lecturer himself, telling them that he is bored.

In the schoolroom, the teacher who barks at his pupils to ‘sit up straight’ is demanding, by right, the attention posture that he should have gained by generating interest in his lesson. It says a great deal for the power of gesture signals that he feels more attended to when he sees his pupils sitting up straight, even though he is consciously well aware of the fact that they have just been forcibly unclamped, rather than genuinely excited by his teaching.

Many of our actions are basically nonsocial, having to do with problems of personal body care, body comfort and body transportation; we clean and groom ourselves with a variety of scratching, rubbings and wiping; we cough, yawn and stretch our limbs; we eat and drink; we prop ourselves up in restful postures, folding our arms and crossing our legs; we sit, stand, squat and recline, in a whole range of different positions; we crawl, walk and run in varying gaits and styles. But although we do these things for our own benefit, we are not always unaccompanied when we do them. Our companions learn a great deal about us from these personal actions-not merely that we are scratching because we itch or that we are running because we are late, but also, from the way we do them, what kind of personalities we possess and what mood we are in at the time.

Where the links are clearer, we can, of course, manipulate the situation and use our Incidental Gestures in a contrived way. If a student listening to a lecture is not tired, but wishes to insult the speaker, he can deliberately adopt a bored, slumped posture, knowing that its message will get across. This is a Stylized Incidental Gesture a mechanical action that is being artificially employed as a pure signal. Many of the common courtesies also fall into this category as when we greedily eat up a plate of food that we do not want and which we do not like, merely to transmit a suitably grateful signal to our hosts. Controlling our Incidental Gestures in this way is one of the processes that every child must learn as it grows up and learns to adapt to the rules of conduct of the society in which it lives.


Mimic Gestures: Gestures which transmit signals by imitation

Mimic Gestures are those in which the performer attempts to imitate, as accurately as possible, a person, an object or an action. The essential quality of a Mimic Gesture is that it attempts to copy the thing it is trying to portray. No stylized conventions are applied. A successful Mimic Gesture is therefore understandable to someone who has never seen it performed before.

There are four kinds of Mimic Gesture:

Social Mimicry

First, there is Social Mimicry, or putting on a good face. We have all smiled at a party when really, we feel sad, and perhaps looked sadder at a funeral than we feel, simply because it is expected of us.

Theatrical Mimicry

Theatrical Mimicry the world of actors and actresses, who simulate everything for our amusement. Essentially it embraces two distinct techniques. One is the calculated attempt to imitate specifically observed actions. The actor who is to play a general, say, will spend long hours watching films of military scenes in which he can analyze every tiny movement and then consciously copy them and incorporate them into his final portrayal.

Partial Mimicry

In Partial Mimicry the performer attempts to imitate something which he is not and never can be, such as a bird, or raindrops. Usually only the hands are involved, but these make the most realistic approach to the subject they can manage. If a bird, they flap their ‘wings’ as best they can; if raindrops, they describe a sprinkling descent as graphically as possible.

Vacuum Mimicry

The fourth kind of Mimic Gesture can best be called Vacuum Mimicry, because the action takes place in the absence of the object to which it is related. If I am hungry, for example, I can go through the motions of putting imaginary food into my mouth. If I am thirsty, I can raise my hand as if holding an invisible glass, and gulp invisible liquid from it. The important feature of Partial Mimicry and Vacuum Mimicry is that, like Social and Theatrical Mimicry, they strive for reality.

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