Searching for Universal Gestures

If there are universal emotions and expressions, does that mean there are universal gestures?

This is exactly what Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto and Dr. Hyisung C. Hwang sought to answer in a 2012 study which sought to conduct a groundbreaking and comprehensive analysis on international differences in gestures.

In order to answer this, they compiled a list of verbal expressions, such as “good luck”, that would be relevant to many cultures and brought people from around the world to examine this list. These individuals then sought to derive a series of gestures, otherwise known as emblems, from this list in order to compare and contrast them between cultures.

But why had such a fascinating question not been suitably investigated? This is partially because their question is a difficult one to answer as many gestures or nonverbal behaviors are culturally specific and drawn from traditional historical contexts. For example, the common Western sign of “good luck” with crossed fingers is derived from older Christian traditions. Thus, the etymology of many gestures becomes complicated to trace.

After examining a wide variety of cultural gestures as identified and performed by representatives of those cultures, Dr. Matsumoto and Dr. Hwang managed to derive a series of loose categories with which to conceptualize cultural similarities and differences.

One of these categories were evaluative gestures, like the Western “thumbs up” but other categories conveyed more nuanced social norms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, gestures fitting into the category of insults seemed to be quite common across many cultures. Other categories included the act of indicating something or of articulating inner physical or mental states, such as being in pain.

Overall, while many gestures were the same across cultures, some similar gestures had radically different meanings depending on where they were used. Moreover, certain gestures appeared to be culturally unique and had no correlates in other cultures, such as South Asian gestures for apology or East Asian messages concerning hunger.

The most consistently universal of these gestures sought to convey very basic messages that tied to universal physical forms. For instance, this manifested in common insults that referred to gross parts of the human body. Most cultures associate human excrement with disgust, so tying this to obscene gestures seems intuitive. Moreover, it would connect profoundly with evidence that ties basic emotions to facial expressions.

As the study authors concluded, this is not the end of a search for universally similar or different gestures. Instead, it was an attempt to reach across cultures and derive categories that can be helpful in both everyday understanding and for future research.

For more information on the role of nonverbal communication across cultures and basic emotions, check out our past few blogs here and here!

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