Talk to the Hand

We’re all adept at communicating without words.

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | New Delhi | Published:March 31, 2013 1:26 am

We’re all adept at communicating without words.

Have you heard of finger hashtags? Sophisticated young people,apparently,cross index and middle fingers on both hands to frame their topics,as they do on Twitter. I’ve never seen anyone do it,but I can see why it might catch on. The hashtag gesture is even being talked up as the new air quote — those ubiquitous finger wiggles that spoke for a whole jaded generation. One usually thinks of linguistic communication evolving through gestures,then words,then text. But finger hashtags and air quotes borrow textual devices to embellish talk.

There’s a rich,versatile communication going on here,in this dance between hands and face. So much of what we express is unsaid,relayed through expressions and gestures. Sometimes,a physical action is integrated with speech and emphasises what you’re saying. Sometimes,a gesture speaks for itself,like when you convey frustration and helplessness by looking upwards and spreading your hands. Zadie Smith’s novel,The Autograph Man,riffs on these “international gestures” — throughout the narrative,she inserts detailed,slow-motion descriptions of the way people signal surprise,calm,sympathy and so on.

The universality of these signs is debatable — is tapping on your temple really the “international gesture for lunacy”,as Smith has it,or merely a Western one? But whether it is because of the movies,greater migration or social media,some signs are now practised and recognised around the world — think of that scribble in the air we all do to ask for the bill in a restaurant. Or duckface,which seems to be Facebook’s default expression. Or that rubbing together of thumb and forefinger that means money. Or the digitus impudicus — giving the finger,which has been considered shameless and indecent in Greek and Roman culture. The offensive edge seems to be wearing off that one,though,because of repeated use.

We often forget the extent to which these gestures are socially learned and culturally changeable. They would mystify outsiders. For instance,Malayalis often convey a “no” with a shrug,a blink and a kissing sound. In middle school,we had a gesture for lapetna,spinning a yarn,maybe flying a kite. Or think of that outward clapping movement some people use to convey male effeminacy.

Some gestures are a specialised vocabulary,like gang signs. Or the language of mudras,in Indian dance. My sister and mother occasionally speak in Kathakali code (“pretty girl”,“so hungry”,etc). Others are mere mannerism,just the way your body moves,like the French “Bof” shrug,or the way they pull their lower eyelid down to convey disbelief or disdain. The Italian repertoire of gestures and grimaces is legend,from chin flicks to forearm jerks.

The zoologist Desmond Morris,who has extensively studied the origins and distribution of symbolic gestures,claims that the Mediterranean is the ideal climate for expansive movements,and also given the sheer range of cultures in a tiny geography and the frequent mixing,gesticulation became much more necessary. In Africa,it’s apparently too hot to bother.

As the anthropologists say,it takes a lot to decode the difference between a wink and a twitch. Both are about contracting an eyelid,but one is an involuntary action,the other could signal complicity,or flirtation,or parody. Knowing the difference between the two is understanding a culture. It is the unsaid,the implicit,you-just-had-to-be-there stuff.

It is in knowing that a V for victory sign can become offensive in some places if your palm is flipped around to face you. Or that a thumbs up,which signals “nice one” or “all good”,is an obscene gesture in Iran and Iraq — imagine the misunderstandings that must cause. Same way,joining the thumb and index finger in a circle is supposed to mean “things are fine” in most contexts,even in scuba diving signals. But in the mid-’90s,the use of that gesture by a minister caused great uproar in the Bangladeshi Parliament — because it essentially meant he was giving the finger to other legislators.

As media flows flatten the world,make us more familiar with each other,many of these confusions also melt away. But subcultures continue to speak to each other over the mainstream,and sign language thrives in unexpected ways — like the way heavy metal types ended up repurposing the devil’s horns,which eventually became the “rock on” smiley. The next frontier for gestures is digital — emoticons and gifs.

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