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History of Gestures


History of Gestures

Gestures are often thought of as inconsequential aspects of communication. They are overlooked as mundane, unless under the eagle-eyed scrutiny of a body language expert helping with a murder mystery. But the fact remains that gestures play an important role in conversations in conjunction with what is being spoken, to complete a half-uttered sentiment or to lend an added emphasis to what is being said. They can also be used all by themselves without accompanying speech, as seen on busy highways following inept lane changes. Try having a conversation with your friend about a near miss you had with a truck while reversing your car, with your hands firmly in your pockets. That is how important they are in human communication.

While we may have a repertoire of gestures all our own with a few borrowed from favorite movie stars, there are quite a few that are universally understood; or at least by members of a given speech community. These are culture-specific and referred to as emblems. Such gestures are often handed down through generations and become an integral part of the communal identity. Cultures that are widely publicized due to television and other multi-media have their gestures adopted universally and integrated into various other cultures and lifestyles. These run the gamut from a wink to the thumbs up, arms akimbo suggesting superiority or control, the shrug, raised eye brow--one or both, and a host of others.

But emblems that remain unexposed to the rest of the world, while having a physical counterpart elsewhere may hold absolutely different connotations. For instance, winking or shutting one eye in a quick motion conveys a shared secret or something sly in popular culture. It was used to convey sexual attraction or appreciation till a while ago, but now is associated with cheap, leery characters whose attentions are, more often than not, considered unwelcome. The interesting fact is that, this same gesture in Nigeria is a silent cue for children to leave the room. A definite case of apples and oranges if ever there was one.

The fun begins when what is positive to one community means the opposite to another and the two have to interact. A recent example of this hilarious situation is still doing the rounds in cyberspace. The thumbs up gesture executed with a closed fist and extended thumb is meant to convey victory or approbation in western culture and in many parts of the world. But in the Middle East, this particular gesture is an emblem similar to our digitus impudicus, or what is in lay man's terms, the raised middle finger. So what the American President and his allies see as increased support for their forces in Iraqi streets could, in fact, mean quite the opposite.

Popular gestures often have interesting origins way back in history. The thumbs up can be traced back to the Coliseum when gladiators fought for all they were worth as thousands watched along with their emperor. The victor had the power of life and death in his hands over the defeated but the command to kill had to come from the audience and be given by the emperor. This depended on how much of a fight was put up by the fallen gladiator. If he had indeed put up a good show, chances were the crowd would convey their appreciation with a thumbs up gesture, which would then be corroborated by the ruler and the life would be spared.

The arms akimbo gesture which conveys power in no uncertain terms is said to have been popularized in the paintings of the Renaissance period. Art historian Joaneath Spicer has gone to great lengths to legitimize this stand in her article, "The Renaissance Elbow." This is supposed to have originated in Italy around the 16th century and then spread from there throughout the Continent and elsewhere. So, today, when an executive stands with hands on hips it is meant to convey power without the aid of powdered wigs, satin knickers, tight stockings, and plumed head gear.

The rabbit ears gesture, a favorite of kids and the kids-at-heart on photo shoots, achieved by sticking two fingers behind a person's head is at best intended to make the recipient look a little silly. Its origins however, go back to a time in history when adultery was a terrible crime. The fingers were meant to represent horns and were meant as an insult to the cuckolded husband.

The open palm stretched out in supplication for help has, believe it or not, been traced to chimpanzees. In fact, about 31 manual gestures have been traced to chimps by scientists Amy Pollick and Frans de Waal from the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre of Emory University, Atlanta. Interestingly enough, none of them are meant to be insulting.

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