Cultural Similarities and Differences in Emblematic Gestures – 2013

In our global world, cross-cultural communication is extremely important in a variety of fields from the legal world, education, law enforcement, to the business world.  Being able to understand how an individual or collective group of individuals communicate is very beneficial.

Dr. Matsumoto, Humintell’s director and lead researcher, along with fellow researcher and colleague Dr. Hyi Sung Hwang have conducted a one of a kind research project that catalogs and compares emblems across different cultural groups to a standard list of verbal messages.

The researchers produced a list of verbal messages to highlight emblematic differences across cultures.  Inspection of the different messages conveyed suggested that the culturally similar gestures included more basic or elemental messages than did the culturally variant ones.

The study entitled Cultural Similarities and Differences in Emblematic Gestures, which can be found in the Journal of  Nonverbal Behavior purports that gestures are as an integral part of verbal messages as words are.  They are categorized as two types, those co-occurring with speech (Speech Illustrators) and those independent of speech (Emblems).


Gestures are an important part of nonverbal communication.  They illustrate speech, amplify meaning, and deliver verbal messages.  The capability to gesture co-evolved with adaptations in our physical anatomy and cognitive and language capabilities (Bouissac 2006), allowing for more rapid and efficient communication systems.

Emblems deliver verbal messages without any verbal utterances (i.e. Peace sign for Peace). An emblem’s versatility, being able to occur with or without speech is why they are so useful; therefore, widely used in each culture.

However, it is important to note that emblems do not mean the same thing across cultures and misinterpreting an emblem’s meaning can lead to disastrous cultural encounters. The study notes that groups exist in different ecologies, which necessitate differences in the generated cultural solutions (Georgas et al.2004; van de Vliert 2009).

Thus, while communication is a universal human ability, the specific forms by which that communication occurs can be different, both verbally and non-verbally.


The researchers observed three types of cultural differences in emblems.

1.  A difference in the form of an emblem across cultures in relation to the same verbal messageInsults, for instance, occurred in all regions and likely serve the same function, conveying offensive or aggressive messages to another.

2.  A difference in meaning to the same forms. The ‘‘ring,’’ for instance, in which a circle is made with the thumb and index finger and the other three fingers are open, can mean ‘‘A-OK,’’ ‘‘money,’’ or a variety of other messages.

3.  Culturally unique emblems. The message for ‘‘apology,’’ for instance, occurred only in South Asia; the message for ‘‘hunger’’ occurred only in East Asia; and the message for ‘‘day after tomorrow’’ occurred only in the Middle East, despite the fact that these are clearly universal concerns.

 To view a chart of various verbal messages and their gestures along with their meaning, and region of origin as well as view any information on the limitations of the study, please read the entire paper.

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