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A history of hand gestures

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Communications
Wordcount: 3159 words Published: 20th Apr 2017

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In this paper I will talk about the part of nonverbal communication called gestures. A gesture is a movement of the body or a part of it that is expressive of thought or feeling. However there is a degree of voluntarism. If someone pinches you and you flinch that is not a gesture. (Kendon, 1997) Gestures are a common part of communication that we all use to communicate everyday and most of us do not even think twice about using them. As gestures can include a wide range of things a narrower focus is required. For this paper I will be focusing on gestures specifically involving the use of hands and/or fingers. First I will talk about research done on gestures. Second I will talk about the interaction between gestures and verbal language. Lastly I will apply the use of gestures to personal friendships using , examples from an episode from the television show Smallville.

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Let us first consider primates such as apes and chimpanzees. Primates are mostly visual animals. Just as in humans, for primates vision is more highly developed than any of the other four senses including the sense of sound. Consider for a moment what this might mean. Primates, with the exception of humans, have much better cortical control over hand movements than over voice, which is mostly restricted to emotionally based sounds controlled by sub cortical structures. This means that early hominids would have been better at expressive, voluntary communication using hands. Perhaps this explains why it is much easier to teach higher level primates sign language than it is to teach them to speak. One early study showed that a chimpanzee raised by humans could learn to speak only three or four words but gorillas and chimpanzees have learned several hundred manual signs. (Corballis, 1999)

However primates other than humans are restricted in using hands for communications because the arms and hands are also involved in postural support and locomotion. Most primates are adapted for living above ground in the tress. Apes live on the ground but move in a four legged fashion. Our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, use what is known as knuckle walking in which the upper body is supported by the knuckles. Hominids are bipedal, walking upright which leaves their hands and arms free. (Corballis, 1999)

There is speculation that the split that resulted in some great apes becoming hominids may have been caused by the formation of the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Those apes which were to become hominids were largely confined to the east of the valley. The discovery of a 3.5 million year old fossil in Chad which is west of the valley has caused some argument. However all other hominid fossils from between four million and two million years ago have been found to the east of the Great Rift Valley. Here the forests gave way to open grasslands called savannas. This new environment would have provided unique challenges for early hominids. They would have been vulnerable to specialized hunters and killers, the ancestors of tigers, lions, and hyenas. In this environment communication using gestures would have been much more effective than vocal communication. It is silent so predators are not alerted. It is also fundamentally spatial, and most of the information would be spatial, such as locations of predators, easy prey, or food. The earliest language being gestural would help explain how words came to be abstract rather than iconic. (Corballis, 1999)

A leading figure in gesture research is psychologist Susan GoldinMeadow who has done several studies about the role of gestures in learning. It is a well established fact that students learn better if both words and hand gestures are used. Consider for example a teacher trying to illustrate water being poured into two containers of equal volume but different heights. The teacher will place one hand on top of the other and move them to illustrate differences in height. (Watts, 2006)


We do not always gesture when we speak. Also the type of gesture, the role in relation to what is being said, and the role in relation to the situation vary. If you wanted a person to stay away you would not use a gesture telling them to come closer. Someone of the other gender gesturing for you to come closer has different meaning then if it is done by a friend or parent. If you are talking about a fish you caught you will hold your hands apart horizontally versus if you are describing how big a baby has gotten your hand would be vertical. (Kendon, 1997)

Just like language gestures are not uniform to a culture or country. In the United States you wave your hand to say hello and goodbye. If you were in northern Europe you would wag your hand at the wrist. In Greece and Italy your palm would face inward and your fingers would be curled in. In Japan you bow slightly. How long and how deep you bow depends on the person. Let’s go back to my earlier example of a gesture that means to come here. Here we curl one finger, usually the index, or all four fingers towards us. In the Philippines do not use the index finger. It is only used for dogs. In Latin America the index finger is a come on. In Indonesia and Australia it’s used for prostitutes. In southern Europe using all your fingers would be saying goodbye. In Korea you would hold your arm out and move your fingers up and down. If someone puts their hand out in front with the fingers outspread here it means stop. In Lebanon it means no. If you were in Greece it’s a curse. In Spain, Nigeria, and Chile it also has rude meanings. In the United States you typically point with your index finger to someone or something. In Europe pointing is not considered polite. In Africa you only point the index finger at inanimate objects. In China and Japan pointing is very rude. In Indonesia pointing with your index finger is very rude but you can use your thumb. In Zambia it is all right to point to objects. And In France if you do point it is best to do it discretely. (Kachka, 2008)

Some gestures are country specific. In the Netherlands grabbing a nonexistent fly in front of your face is saying someone is nuts. In Poland flicking a finger against someone’s neck means you want them to join you for a drink. You only do this with close friends. In Russia giving someone a thumbs up and making a sprinkling motion over it means job well done. In India you say sorry by tapping someone on the shoulder and touching your forehead. In Turkey pretending to throw salt over your shoulder with an open palm means don’t worry about it. (Kachka, 2008)

Just like words gestures have their own origins. But since gestures predate verbal communication and thus written record the origins are difficult to trace. This does not keep people from speculating. Here is a myth behind a common gesture; the Roman emperors thumbs down gesture telling the gladiator to finish off the other gladiator. Today’s popular culture has it that a thumbs down meant death while a thumbs up would grant the loser his life. There is no evidence of this. In fact most scholars now believe that the finish him gesture was a thumbs up while a thumb hidden inside a fist spared the loser. This is not absolutely verified. However since the thumbs up was an insult in Roman times this makes more sense than the accepted folklore. (Kachka, 2008)

Now we will exam hand gestures in friendship. To do this we will be examining an episode of the CW show Smallville. As you might guess this show centers around the character Clark Kent played by actor Tom Welling. The series follows Clark as he deals not only with his developing powers and fighting meteor freaks (people exposed to Kryptonite who gain special abilities) but also school, friends, and crushes. Clark has two best friends, Pete Ross and Chloe Sullivan. The episode we will be focusing on is the episode Duplicity in which Pete finds out Clark’s secret. The other notable characters in the episode include Clark’s parents, Lex Luthor, and Dr. Hamilton.

After Lex refuses to give Dr. Hamilton, who is dying from exposure to meteor rocks, any more funding for his research Dr. Hamilton runs someone off the road. Pete comes along and while helping the man comes across Clark’s spaceship which was lost in a tornado in the season one finale. Pete gets Clark to help him hide it in his shed although Clark tries to get him to leave it but can’t come up with a logical reason. Dr. Hamilton talks to the hurt driver in the hospital who admits he saw a spaceship and that the boy who saved him saw it too. When Clark tells his parents about Pete finding the spaceship his father makes him go with him to get the ship. But when they get there it is already gone. They drive away and Pete sees them leaving. When Pete confronts Clark he shows Pete his powers. Furious that Clark has been lying to him for so long Pete leaves. Clark’s attempts to talk to him are rebuffed. But when Pete goes home Dr. Hamilton is searching the shed and Pete is kidnapped. Hamilton tortures him to see what he knows about the ship. Just as he is about to kill Pete by injecting him with meteor rocks Clark bursts in. Unfortunately he collapses due to the Kryptonite. Pete saves him by pushing Dr. Hamilton into a shelf full of meteor rocks. After they return the ship to the Kent’s cellar Pete says he understands why Clark and that he won’t tell anyone. We will examine three scenes from the episode: the scene where Pete gets Clark to come with him to the cornfield, the scene in the cornfield where they are talking about what to do with the ship, and the scene where Pete confronts Clark about the missing ship and Clark reveals his powers.

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When Clark is shooting baskets from a hundred feet Pete drives up. “Clark, Clark, Clark. You’re dreaming if you think you’re gonna make a basket from there.” Pete makes an exaggerated pointing motion towards the basketball hoop. “No, no, no. The ball rolled out here.” Clark makes a waving motion to indicate the spot. “Want to play a game of horse?” “Forget basketball. We gotta borrow your dad’s truck.” Pete makes a waving motion with one hand. “For what?” “I’ll explain on the way. Come on, we don’t have much time.” “What’s going on?” Clark holds his hands out at this side with palms turned out. “If I told you, you’d never believe me.” Pete places his palms on his chest when he says. “You gotta see it with your own eyes.” Pete puts his hand on Clark’s shoulder urging him to move.

Pete leads Clark to the spaceship clapping his hands together and making trumpeting sounds. “Pretty mind-blowing, huh?” He gestures to the ship with his hand. “What do you think it is?” “Oh, Clark, it’s a spaceship!” Pete motions to the ship again. “What the hell else would it be?” Pete waves his arms in a questioning gesture. Kneeling down beside the ship Clark says, Well, I mean, I don’t know if it was some, like, downed specialty aircraft or a Russian satellite or something.” After he says this Clark also motions to the ship. As Pete kneels down beside the ship and runs his hands over it, he says No, no, no. This thing’s got extraterrestrial written all over it.” “Yeah, I bet there’s little green guys running around the cornfield too, Pete.” “I’m serious, Clark. Have you ever seen anything like it?” Pete spreads one hand palm out and motions to the surrounding area with the other one. “If the aliens came to Earth, don’t you think they’d find a place a little more exciting than Smallville?” “No, no, no, think about it. Crop circles, cattle mutilation. They’d be like kids in a candy store here! Come on, man, let’s load it into the truck!” Pete waves his arms wildly at the surrounding area. Then he grabs the ship. Clark moves to stop him. “Wait, you’re not just gonna take it.” Clark, when the sheriff questioned me about the accident, I told him in all the confusion I couldn’t remember where the truck went off the road. But it’s only a matter of time before he shows up. Come on. Come on!” When talking about the sheriff Pete spreads his arms with palms out and then motions to the ship. “All right fine. We’ll take it to my house.” “No, no, no, Clark! I know your dad. He’ll make us turn it over to the authorities.” Pete puts his hand on Clark’s chest with the palm out. “I won’t even tell him. He won’t know it’s there.” Clark spreads his arms out with his palms out. “Clark, we’re taking it to my house. We’ll hide it in the tool shed in my backyard. No one ever goes back there.” “Pete, my house would be perfect. It’ll be safe there.” “Clark, last time I checked, I found this thing. You’re acting like you got license and registration on it, man. Lighten up. We’re taking it to my place.” When Pete says” I” he places his hands on his chest. When he talks about Clark owning the ship he flips his hand out towards him. When he says ”lighten up” he holds his hand up with his palm facing out and his fingers spread. When he says” my place” his hands are yet again on his chest.

“Pete. Hey, I was just gonna come talk to you.” “Really?” “Yeah, about the ship…” “Oh, someone broke in to my shed last night and stole it.” Pete holds his hands out palms up. “ “Really?” “Yeah.” “Well, did you tell anyone it was there?” No, did you?” “No, my lips have been sealed.” “You’re such a liar.” What do you mean?” “I saw you and your dad driving away from my shed last night.” Pete motions to Clark. “ All night long I kept telling myself there’s gotta be some sort of logical explanation. Clark Kent would never do anything like this.” Pete holds his hands out slightly with the palms facing out. “Pete, I swear we didn’t take the ship.” Clark spreads his arms holding his hands out with the palms spread. “And all these years I used to think you were my best friend.” Pete motions to Clark again and starts to get into his car. “Pete, wait. You don’t understand.” Pete turns around and says holding his arms out slightly at his sides with palms facing out, “What don’t I understand? Go ahead, explain it to me, Clark.” Clark doesn’t know what to say. “ That’s good, really illuminating. Wait till Chloe hears about this. I can already see the headlines. The Real Clark Kent Exposed!” Clark puts his hand on the car door. Pete starts to drive away. Clark watches him drive away and waves his arms then he appears in front of the car holding it to stop it from moving forward. “Pete, we need to talk.” The screen fades to black and then they are in the cellar talking. “So you’re some sort of… what? You’re not a human?” Pete holds both hands out at Clark with his palms facing each other. “I don’t know what I am.” Clark spreads his arms with his palms facing out. “ I don’t know where that ship brought me from. I just know that I grew up in Smallville, and everything that I care about and everyone that I care about is here.” Clark motions to the surroundings and to Pete. “If you care about me so much, how come you never told me sooner?” Pete, believe me, there wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t want to tell you, but my parents thought it was too dangerous. Not just for me, but for anyone else who knew the truth.” When Clark says “you” he gestures to Pete. “You didn’t think I could handle it?” Pete holds his arms out to Clark. “Can you?” Pete starts walking around Clark looking at him like he’s an exhibit in a museum. “Pete, another reason why I didn’t say anything is because I knew people would look at me the exact same way that you’re looking at me right now.” “And how’s that?” ” Like a freak.” Pete motions at Clark with his palm facing up. “Pete, I’ve tried my whole life just to blend in, to try and be more normal than anyone else. Would you just say something? Call me… call me an alien, call me a monster. I don’t care, just say something.” “It’s like I don’t even know you.” Yet again Pete motions to Clark. “Yes, you do know me. I’m the same kid that used to camp in your backyard.” Clark motions to Pete. “ We used to ride our bikes in the woods, we used to play basketball with your brothers. Nothing has changed.” “Yeah, right.” Clark holds his hand out and steps towards Pete, “Pete.” Pete backs away and waves him arms. “Back off, man!” “Pete, I would never hurt you.” “Too late.” Pete walks out.


Gestures are a part of nonverbal communication that movement of the body or a part of it that is expressive of thought or feeling. Gestures were used by primates as communication before verbal communication was developed and primates are much more able to learn sign language than verbal language. Early hominids would have found gestures much more useful than verbal communication for avoiding predators. There is evidence to support that both gestures and verbal language are required for effective learning. Gestures vary depending on the role in relation to what is being said, the role in relation to the situation, and the cultures in which they are used. There are many example of gestures in the media and one of those is the television show Smallville. Ponder this information the next time you have a conversation. It might be useful.


Corballis, M. C. (1999, March/‌April). The gestural origins of language. American Scientist, 87(2), 138-45. Retrieved from http://library1.kvcc.edu:2086/‌WebZ/‌FSFETCH?fetchtype=fullrecord:sessionid=fsapp5-59149-g7mfsff0-h2lwg1:entitypagenum=3:0:recno=4:resultset=1:format=FI:next=html/‌record.html:bad=error/‌badfetch.html:entitytoprecno=4:entitycurrecno=4:numrecs=1

Kachka, B. (2008, April). Hand Gestures. Condé Nast’s Traveler, 43(4), 112. Retrieved from http://library1.kvcc.edu:2048/‌login?url=http://library1.kvcc.edu:2081/‌pqdweb?did=1616098011&sid=2&Fmt=3&clientId=17874&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Kendon, A. (1997). Gesture. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26, p. 109-28. Retrieved from http://library1.kvcc.edu:2086/‌WebZ/‌FSQUERY?format=BI:next=html/‌records.html:bad=html/‌records.html:numrecs=10:sessionid=fsapp5-59149-g7mfsff0-h2lwg1:entitypagenum=2:0:searchtype=advanced

Watts, G. (2006, April 29). You need hands. The Lancet, 367(9520), 1383. Retrieved from http://library1.kvcc.edu:2048/‌login?url=http://library1.kvcc.edu:2081/‌pqdweb?did=1033983921&sid=2&Fmt=4&clientId=17874&RQT=309&VName=PQD


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