Many scholars consider that all what surrounds people and what is created by them does have meaning (Chandler, Cobley, Hamel, Lustig, Koester, O’Halloran, Tan, Smith, Podlasov, Smetsky,Trim). Danesi stresses that all meanings belong to the domain of semiotics, but this science limits itself to the function, structure, and use of different signs, figures, images, rituals, space, colors, gestures, and words.

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Every second people are communicating with each other. When people do this, they always use not only words but other means of communication which are known as nonverbal means, for instance, postures, gestures, voice, touch, space, time, physical environment and others. It should be kept in mind that there may be a gap between what people say and what they feel. Sometimes no word can be said, but the communication does take place. It implies that the message is sent nonverbally. From time to time, people are not always sure of what they are communicating nonverbally. It is worth pointing out that all people around send a great amount of nonverbal messages which have to be decoded. Nonverbal communication is very difficult to interpret accurately. In order to interpret nonverbal communication correctly, people should take into account the following factors: the context in which it occurs; the history of people’s relations; the spirits of the sender and the receiver, the culture and the environment (Goman). If people are capable of comprehending these messages, then they get much information about other people’s feelings and thoughts. This ability will help people react and respond to the following messages. For instance, Dennis, Kinney, & Hug (1999) drew to the conclusion after some researches had been done that women can easily and better understand nonverbal means of communication than men.

Many scholars agree that face-to-face communication is richer in nonverbal cues if to compare with other means of communication, for example, e-mails or telephone talks (Adler & Rodman, Danesi, Polome, Wilson, Keil).

Nonverbal communication is subdivided into vocal and non-vocal. The vocal communication includes tone of voice, sighs, screams, and vocal qualities (loudness, quietness, and pitch). Non-vocal communication comprises gestures, movements, appearance, facial expressions (Adler & Rodman, Sebeok).

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

  1. Nonverbal communication allows people to distinguish what relations they want to have with each other.
  2. Nonverbal communication helps convey people’s feelings and emotions which they want or have no intention to express, or they may be even not aware of.

Characteristic Features of Nonverbal Communication

  1. Nonverbal communication is multidimensional. It means that people can simultaneously use not one means of nonverbal communication but several. For instance, voice, posture, eye contact, gestures, distance or time can be used simultaneously.
  2. It can be characterized as continuous. It means that people cannot communicate nonverbally.
  3. Nonverbal communication is ambiguous. Every means of nonverbal communication can be interpreted differently by each person.
  4. It is often unintentional. People usually use nonverbal communication not having any intention to do so (Goman, Wilson & Keil).
  5. Nonverbal communication can be repeated. For instance, people can point something when they wave. It may mean either ‘hello’ or ‘farewell’ (Picture 1).
  6. Nonverbal communication can be easily substituted by the verbal messages. For example, when a person feels boring, he/she may say that he/she feels so or shows it using facial expression (Picture 2).
  7. Nonverbal communication can be complementing. Sometimes nonverbal behaviors match the content of the verbal message. In this case, people’s behavior can be accompanied by the spoken words. For example, when a person is furious, he/she may use nonverbal communication (Picture 3).
  8. It can be stressing. While communicating, people may stress certain words. It is another way to add nonverbal communication: voice tone, pitch, and stress (Pomole, Strazny).
  9. Nonverbal communication can be regulating. It controls the flow of verbal communication.
  10. It can be contradicting. People may simultaneously express different and even contradicting messages in their verbal and nonverbal behaviors. For instance, a person with red face and bulging veins crying, ‘Maddened? No. I am not maddened!’ (Picture 4).
  11. Nonverbal communication can be deceiving. Sometimes a person can deceive the key points of the message. According to the researches, women are considered to become successful liars when they grow older (Buller, Burgoon, Guerrero, & Feldman, 1994). It should be pointed out that after the 11-th of September, the FBI has started teaching nonverbal behavior analysis to all new recruits. The USA Custom Service studies the body language techniques (Davis). This helps identify terrorists who do their best to deceive other people.

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Types of Nonverbal Communication

There are many types of nonverbal communication recognized. These types are: postures, gestures, facial expressions, voice, touch, physical appearance and attractiveness, space, time, physical environment (Adler & Rodman, Nealon & Giroux, Pomole, Sebeok, Strazny).

While communicating with each other, people use verbal and nonverbal means of communication. Nonverbal means do play a key role in the people’s communication, but sometimes they cannot be easily decoded and may be interpreted differently depending on the context, clusters, congruence, consistency, and culture. Nonverbal communication has its own characteristic features and types.

This paper will be focused on such type of nonverbal communication as gestures. We will try to point out some issues concerning the use of different gestures and to explain their meanings and possible interpretations. While analyzing different gestures, we will take into account some social and other traditions of semiotic researches.


Gesture is an essential part of human communication. They are ubiquitous, direct, and spontaneous. When people interact with each other, they can move their hands showing, pointing, and indicating something. In such a way, people represent their concrete spacio-temporal boundaries. These gestures seem connected to what people are talking about. Sometimes different gestures can be used in order to convey the same message.

Some gestures can be easily understood by many people not taking into account what culture, community, or group they belong to. These gestures are universal and remain unchanged for years or centuries. The universal gestures can show: disgust (Picture 5), fear (Picture 6), sadness (Picture 7), and surprise (Picture 8). If people want to show something of a big size (Picture 9) or a small size (Picture 10), they use both hands.

Benner tresses that Adam Kendon is the first scholar who started to analyze gestures. This researcher characterized hand gestures as gestures that exist along a continuum. They can be either nonlinguistic or fully linguistic hand movements (the sign language). McNeill (1992) supports Kendon’s views that there are semi-linguistic hand gestures which are called emblems. Emblems are considered deliberate nonverbal behaviors that have certain meanings known to everyone within the cultural group. Emblems may vary from one culture to the other one, for example, ‘V or victory gesture’ (Picture 11). The ‘V’ gesture meant victory and had a positive meaning. This gesture was used for the first time by the Prime-minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, during the World War II. In the 1960-s, it was used as a symbolic gesture of the antiwar movement that indicated peace. People usually show this gesture and say ‘peace.’ Nowadays, this gesture has a positive meaning in the American and British cultures, while in some other cultures, it is considered as a rude one (Givens).

The nowadays researches aim to relate psychological processes to gestures, comprising psycholinguistic aspects of reception and speech production. In fact, emblems are the inseparable part of language. They are learned as a part of language socialization.

The Gestures Classification

The great amount of communicative hand gestures are considered nonlinguistic, and usually accompany verbal communication. There are many classifications of nonlinguistic gestures, but in this paper, we are going to use the classification suggested by McNeill (1992). This classification has been accepted by many researchers who are dealing with gestures. According to McNeill (1992), all nonlinguistic gestures are subdivided into metaphoric, iconic, deictic, and beats. Iconic gestures represent something concrete, and metaphoric gestures illustrate something abstract. Both metaphoric and iconic gestures do not have any fixed form; they are usually used and created spontaneously by people while communicating. Deictic gestures may direct or point something. When people tell about any direction or location, their words are usually accompanied by deictic gestures. Another category recognized comprises all rhythmic gestures. They are called ‘beats’. Beats may be short and rhythmic movements of people’s hands and are not usually addressed to the receiver. They represent nothing in verbal communication. They are used to make some emphasizes while delivering the information to regulate some aspects of communication, to structure the flow of discourse, and to follow the rhythm.

In this paper, we are going to analyze nonlinguistic gestures, taking into account the classification suggested by McNeill. We are going to clear out the origin, the meaning, and possible interpretations of the nonlinguistic hand gestures.

Gestures: Their Interpretation, Meaning, and Origin

‘OK gesture or thumbs–up’ (Picture 12) is a rather popular gesture that implies that everything is well. This gesture has a very long history. In ancient times, gem stone dealers used to check gems. The gem was placed between the forefinger and the thumb, then, it was held up to the sun or light. The gem was moved from one side to another to check and prove its purity and/or flaws. When the gem was pure, without any flaws observed, the gem stone dealer bought or sold it. So, this process was connected with pleasant/unpleasant emotions. Nowadays, people use this gesture to show that they are happy and satisfied (Givens, Goman). It is worth mentioning the appearance of the OK abbreviation which is closely connected with the following gesture. This abbreviation and gesture were popularized during the election campaign of Martin Van Buren. His supporters used such abbreviation as ‘the O. K. Club’ to cheer up their leader. This abbreviation was connected with Buren’ nickname ‘Old Kinderhook’ because he was born in a small village of Kinderhook, not far from New York. But after his losing the elections, this word stuck to Buren. In those times, it did not have a very positive meaning, but with time, this word and gesture changed their meaning, because Buren tried to show that he was not disappointed and everything was great (Online Etymological Dictionary).

Thumbs-up and thumbs-down

‘Thumbs-up’ (Picture 13) and ‘thumbs-down’ (Picture 14) are considered to be ones of the widely used gestures. These gestures were used in the ancient Roman Empire. When gladiators were fighting with each other and one lost, then, there was a rule to give him a chance to live or die, showing the thumbs-up or thumbs-down gestures (Armstrong & Wagner, Goman). These gestures were rather popularized during the World War II. Nowadays, these gestures have both positive and negative meanings.

Fingers crossed

‘Fingers crossed’ (Picture 15) usually means to wish a good fortune or luck. According to Coleman, this gesture has either a Christian or pagan origin. It was used to protect people and their houses from the evil spirits. In many cultures, this gesture is believed to help when people are telling lie. Coleman stresses that many scholars believe that when people cross fingers, they form the Christian cross. It is well-known that the cross is used to put away demons and evil spirits. This gesture is considered to have either a positive or negative meaning (Armstrong & Wagner).

The stop-enough gesture

The ‘stop-enough gesture’ (Picture 16) is usually used by parents and teachers. This gesture is directed on a certain person in order to give a warning. Some researchers consider that this gesture can be rude (Armstrong, Wagner, Goman).

The stop and calm down

The ‘stop and calm down’ gesture can be interpreted differently depending upon the situation. It is a gesture that can be substituted by the words ‘Stop, enough.’ This gesture may imply control. This very gesture may mean ‘Stay away’ (Picture 17). It is known as ‘talk to the hand gesture.’ The pal and fingers are put vertically and create an obstacle. It is a gesture that is usually used for defense. If it is used in everyday communication, it implies that a person has no interest. Sometimes this gesture may be interpreted as a message that a person wants to demonstrate his/her dominance or superiority (Armstrong & Wagner).

The beggining

The ‘begging gesture’ (Picture 18) shows that a person has empty hands stretched. It implies that this person is depressed. This gesture can be substituted by words ‘I have nothing left but ask you for charity.’ It is often used by beggars in order to get food or money. When it is used in the other circumstances (Picture 20, 21), it may imply that a person asks for help or support (Armstrong & Wagner).

The fig sign

The ‘fig sign’ (Picture 22) is usually made with the fingers and the hand curled and the thumb is between the middle and index fingers. In such a way, the fist is formed that the thumb can be partly seen. Depending upon the culture, it may be treated either as a good or bad gesture. The newly-born infants and small children get used to show this gesture very often. The true origin of this gesture is unknown.

The come on hurry up

The ‘come on or hurry up gesture’ (Picture 23) is used by people when they are pointing at the wrist where there should be a watch. This gesture is treated as a gesture of irritation or impatience. Sometimes people can use this gesture subconsciously, indicating that something must be over (Armstrong & Wagner).

The raised hand

The ‘raised hand gesture (Picture 24) may be understood as a sign that a person is ready to do or agree to something. It may be substituted by words ‘Agree or Ready.’ When people raise their hand in the street, they can point out their location or indicated that they have an intention to get a taxi (Armstrong & Wagner).

The pointing

The ‘pointing gesture’ can be interpreted differently, depending upon the culture, context, or intention. Pointing at somebody is treated as one person’s domination over the other (Picture 25). This gesture is used to single out somebody from the rest of people. It may be substituted by the words ‘I am addressing you!’ (Goman). If people are at the market or in the shop, they use this gesture to single out something what they like or are eager to buy because of its wonderful characteristic features or their personal tastes. This gesture may be used to point out a distant location (Picture 26).

The do you understand gesture

The ‘do you understand gesture’ (Picture 27) is a gesture when the fingers of the hand are closed as if they pinch the idea. It is often used by a director who addresses a worker (Armstrong & Wagner, Goman).

The steeple one

The ‘steeple gesture’ (Picture 28) is considered to be a sign that implies confidence or superiority. It may also mean an order for people to listen patiently and attentively (Goman).

The come here

The ‘come here gesture’ (Picture 29) is a gesture when people extend their hand and curl their forefinger towards their palm in rather hooking movement.

The punched fists gesture

The ‘punched fists gesture’ (Picture 30) implies that people are angry and ready to hurt others. Sometimes men can lightly punch one another, and it is treated as a form of greetings. This form of greeting is very popular among young people, mostly boys (Armstrong & Wagner).

The calling one

The ‘calling gesture’ (Picture 31) is a gesture made with the thumb and pinky fingers extended. While using it, people indicate that somebody or they are going to call soon. This gesture can be substituted by words ‘Call me or just phone soon!’

The longhorns gesture

The ‘longhorns gesture’ (Picture 32) is a typical gesture of the Texas Longhorn football. It is used by its fans as a sign of support and greetings. As to its direct etymology, this gesture was associated with such animal as a goat/bull and such evil entity as devil (Armstrong & Wagner).

The cuckoo sign

The ‘cuckoo sign’ (Picture 33) is a very spontaneous sign. It is used to indicate that people are crazy or unbalanced. As a rule, people use their index finger in order to point at their head, or they may make some circles using the index finger (Armstrong & Wagner, Lustig & Koester, 2010).

The thumbing of the nose

The other gesture is the ‘thumbing of the nose’ (Picture 34). The hand is held erect, the fingers are sprayed and wigging with the tip of the thumb that is placed on the tip of people’s nose. It is worth pointing out that this gesture has a great amount of names, if to compare with other gestures. There are more than 14 names in English only, for instance, to pull a snook, to cock a snook, to make a long nose, to take a sight, a Queen Anne’s fan, the five finger salute, a coffee-mill, a Spanish fan. This gesture is very ancient, but its origin is unclear. There are several theories of this gesture appearance, but they can be proved. It implies insult or mockery. According to the researchers, it is widely known and used in the whole Europe (Armstrong & Wagner).

The time out sign

The ‘time out sign’ (Picture 35) is formed with the flat hands where one hand is put perpendicularly to the other one. This gesture originated in sport and means that time is out. Nowadays, it is a very common gesture which is used to point out that there is no time left (Armstrong & Wagner).

The finger snap

The ‘finger snap’ (Picture 36) occurs when the middle and the thumb fingers are being rubbed tighter very quickly in order to produce some noise of clicking. This gesture was used in ancient Rome in order to get attention of the servants. Nowadays, it is used to attract attention when people are rather impatient and have to hurry up or to call a waiter/waitress. This is used as a beating gesture too. People use their finger snap gesture to keep time with music. Usually, there is no hidden meaning implied. In this very case, fingers are used as a metronome (Armstrong & Wagner).

The cross one’s heart gesture

The ‘cross one’s heart gesture’ is performed with the index finger of one hand traces an ‘X’ over the left breast, where the heart is located. It is a Christian religious gesture which is used to indicate the crucifix of Jesus Christ. Many historians suggest that it had been performed with the index finger and the thumb on the forehead by the fourth century A.D. Since that time the heart has been crossed too. By the tenth century, the heart cross had been transformed into a full cross of the upper body. The cross one’s heart gesture is used as an oath and is usually accompanied by a phrase ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’ It stresses that the given promise would not be broken (Armstrong & Wagner).

The hand/hands behind the head gesture

The ‘hand/hands behind the head gesture’ (Picture 37, 38) is a gesture when hands are put behind the neck or the head. It may indicate pleasure or frustration, disagreement or perplexity (Givens).

The palm down

The ‘palm down’ (Picture 39) is a gesture in which the hands/hand assumes the prone position. It is used to show that people are very confident and dominant. Sometimes it means ‘No!’, ‘Quiet!’, ‘Silence!’ or ‘Enough!’ Givens points out that during the presidential campaign, George Bush used this gesture to show his dominance over the other candidates.

The palm up

The ‘palm up’ (Picture 40) is a gesture made with the opened arms that are raised in appealing position. It is treated as a nonaggressive and vulnerable gesture. It shows the mood of people. This gesture implies surprise, astonishment, or indifference (Givens).

The chin flick

The ‘chin flick’ (Picture 41) is performed with the fingernails of one hand brushed under and away from the chin in a multiply motions. It has many meanings that are usually insulting. It is a rather symbolic gesture. It may imply ‘Get lost!’ or “Keep your mouth shut!’ (Armstrong & Wagner).

The hand-to-mouth

The ‘hand-to-mouth gesture’ has different meanings (Picture 42). For example, when children tell a lie, they do try to cover their mouth with one or two hands. It looks as if they are trying to hold something back, but it is too late. They do perceive that they have said something wrong. The older kids are completely aware of the fact that they are deceitful, so they try to stop saying something wrong, putting the hand to mouth. While speaking of adults, they are accustomed to use this gesture in order to show that they feel bored, or that they do not believe something or somebody. People who are saying lies can touch their nose too. When people are going to tell a lie, they do touch their nose or put the hand to their mouth (Burgoon, Goman).

The ultimately closed gesture

The ’ultimately closed gesture’ (Picture 43) can be observed very often. It is treated as the universal arms-crossed-over-the-chest gesture. It may express resistance, guardedness, and disagreement. According to conducted researches, such gesture implies that people do not listen to others or are not interested in something or somebody. Goman gives an example of two groups of students being asked to attend the lectures using certain gestures. The first group was allowed to react normally, and the second were supposed to come to the lectures with their arms-crossed-over-the-chest gesture. As a result, the second group managed to get 38 percent less than the first one.

The gesture of interest or chin stroking gesture

The ‘gesture of interest or chin stroking gesture’ (Picture 44) has a rather positive meaning. It gives a signal that the receiver is analyzing what has been told. If people lean forwards, they become interested in something or somebody. But if people lean back, it implies a troubling situation (Goman).

There is a great amount of different gestures that can be interpreted differently depending upon context, culture, clusters, consistency, and congruence. Some gestures can easily substitute words, or words can be substituted by them. Studying of gestures can serve as a positive predictor of people’s actions.


The existence of the humankind cannot be imagined without communication. While interacting with each other, people simultaneously use verbal and nonverbal means of communication. Nonverbal communication, unlike verbal communication, is always present when people interact with one another. It helps convey peoples’ feelings, emotions, and attitudes. Nonverbal communication has its characteristic features that distinguish it from verbal one. There are nonverbal means related to all spoken languages. Nonverbal means of communication can be interpreted differently by different people. Consistency, context, culture, clusters, and congruence are the most important factors that play an essential role in the process of verbal and nonverbal communication.

Gestures are one of a great amount of nonverbal communication means. They are so fundamental that even people who are blind from birth can use them (Iverson, 1999). Some gestures can be easily comprehended, not paying attention to culture, gender, or community.

Many scholars have been conducting different researches in order to clear out gestures, their meaning, and origin. When people are able to interpret gestures correctly, they may understand other people’s feelings and thoughts, show their own attitudes and emotions.

Further studies of gestures are very essential for people all over the world. It will help clear out differences and similarities, understand peculiar features that are connected with such processes as coding and decoding of information.

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