There are times when verbally complementing someone is just not on.
Instead, we make a fist and hold it up in front of our face while sticking up our thumb. It’s popularly known as “the thumbs up sign.” Even a local supermarket chain uses it in its advertising. Thus, without saying a word, we tell someone that it is “OK”, or they have done a “good job.” But move that same fist and thumb back and forth towards either shoulder, and it now means you want a lift.
In Nigeria, the “thumbs up” sign is a rude gesture.
Remember the verbal bumbler, former president George Bush Snr, saying, “Read my lips?” That was an endorsement of non-verbal communication! He had difficulties with words.
Now, let’s keep that fist up with the palm facing you, but letting only the middle finger stand up straight.
Don’t look around; it’s not thunder. Someone’s coming at you because you have just insulted someone beyond human dignity.
But, quickly still, don’t collapse that fist; just let your thumb and forefinger form a circle with the other three fingers splayed upward: it means ‘OK’. It means ‘hakuna matata’. No problem. It means ‘fine’ or ‘yes’. You have just apologized. But this same ‘OK’ sign means “zero” in France. It means money or coins in Japan while in Brazil and Germany it is an obscene gesture.
That is body language; that is non-verbal communication. So much the same everywhere, but so much affected by culture.
While you and I southern Africans may lay both our palms on top of each other flat on our chests while shaking our heads ever so slightly, a Navajo Indian would simply pull on his ear and communicate the same message: ‘You are in my heart.’ Eskimos don’t kiss; they rub their noses together and convey the same erotic closeness.
Body language is most pronounced where there is little space, like in elevators. A psychologist offers that next time you walk in to a crowded elevator, don’t turn around and face the door. Instead, just stand there facing the others. If you want to create even more tension, grin.
“Very likely the other passengers will glare back, surprised, grim, and upset,” he says. Reason? You have broken the rules.
This, he says, demonstrates how, even in the most mundane situations, we have a silent set of rules for bodily behavior in public settings.
People, like animals, do not need words to communicate. Sounds alone make or convey a message of joy, anger, warning or welcome. Gestures and body language communicate as effectively as words – maybe even more effectively as animals can testify.
The world is ‘a giddy montage of vivid gestures – traffic police, street vendors, drivers on the roads, teachers in the classrooms, children on playgrounds, athletes with their exuberant, almost pornographic hugging in celebration, clenched fists and high fives.’ People all over the world use their hands, heads, and bodies to communicate expressively.
“Gestures are woven inextricably in to our social lives, but also that the “vocabulary” of gestures, can be at once informative and entertaining…but also dangerous,” says Gary Imai, author of ‘Gestures: Body Language and Nonverbal Communication’. “Without gestures, our world would be static and colourless.”
The gesture of handshaking is an amazing thing and yet is taken for granted. It apparently evolved as an assurance that, on meeting, one was not carrying any weapon. Handshaking is not practised in all cultures but where it is done, the message is unmistakable: ‘I welcome you in peace.’
A handclasp between two living hands, in addition to expressing comforting and loving intentions, miraculously receives a greeting at the very moment that it gives it. Until the politicians arrived! Today, no one shakes hands more often than government envoys whose countries are at war.
Edward T. Hall, a social anthropologist, claims that 60 percent of all our communication is nonverbal. This confirms the humorous but fact-based ‘Real Life Tools For Surviving Life’ which states that “communication is 55 percent body language, 38 percent tone and 7 percent words.”
In my native Zimbabwe, when you move your shoulders straight up and down, you are saying ‘no’, ‘I don’t want’ or ‘I don’t know’ in very clear terms. But if you keep those shoulders up while rubbing your hands together, you are telling someone that you are extremely cold and desire some warmth.
Gestures can be menacing too. In any species, flaring nostrils is a sign of anger and provocation. And when someone tilts their head to the side and keeps their arms folded on their bosom as you approach them, it indicates a problem.
Body language are signals we all exude, either consciously or sub-consciously. It is a series of unconscious gestures that display our emotional status and thought processes.
Outstretched arms, for example, show unmistakable welcome. Although we are products of our varied cultures and environment, most body language gestures are the same world wide but we should never jump to conclusions because that fine difference in meaning can cause a disaster.
Take the eyebrows for example. In Zimbabwe, if you push your eyebrows up, you are saying ‘yes’, especially to a question. But in another culture, moving your eyebrows up while maintaining eye contact with a woman is an indication to her that you want a romantic frolic with her. In the Philippines it simply means ‘hello.’
According to specialists, children are born with an inherent body language that is common to all peoples and they learn further actions as they develop.
“There are many movements which appear to be universal, suggesting we are born with them, such as a look of surprise. On top of those is a series of learned expressions which can be different from culture to culture”, says Dr Peter Bull, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of York and author of Communication under the Microscope. “These cultural differences take time to develop and are less marked in very young children.”
Body language, including facial expression, accompanies most human speech to gain effective communication. Punching your palm with your fist as you talk. Shaking your head from side to side as you say, “No!” Laying a palm on your heart while we sing Fatshe leno la rona, the national anthem. A person who makes fists with both hands and repeatedly punches the air is ecstatic about some success or achievement. But what message do we get when, instead of fists, he uses palms and fingers?
“Gestures support speech,” says Imai. “They help to clarify meaning and make it more accessible to the listener.”
Facial expressions and body language are highly dependent on cultures. Often, the same facial expression conveys different meanings in different cultures. In Western cultures, raising the forehead (especially accompanied with ‘Oh’) often indicates doubt or disbelief. In East and southern Africa (without ‘oh’) it means “yes.”
How do even very young babies know to look at your eyes when you’re talking to them – not at your mouth, where the sound comes from? Professor Bruce Hood, Chair of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol, says from birth, newborns pay particular attention to the human face in comparison with other types of visual patterns and the eyes are the most conspicuous feature of the face.
“It seems unlikely that such behaviours are learned but rather reflect a repertoire of behaviours that are built in to kick-start social interaction.”
Mario Pei, a communications expert, estimated that humans can produce up to 700,000 different physical signs which may mean different things in different countries. Another expert, Birdwhistell, estimated that the face alone is capable of producing 250,000 expressions.
But in the midst of this sea of gestures and physical expressions, there remains one gesture, dubbed “the ultimate gesture”, which is understood and means the same thing in any country or culture on earth.
According to Roger Axtell, author of Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language, this “ultimate gesture” carries certain welcome characteristics unlike any other single gesture…
First, he says, this “ultimate gesture” is known everywhere in the world. It is absolutely universal.
Second, it is rarely, if ever, misunderstood. Obscure tribes, and world leaders alike, know and use this gesture. Tribesmen – like you and me, no doubt – recognize it in others and use it themselves.
Third, scientists believe this particular gesture actually releases chemicals called endorphins in to the system that create a feeling of mild euphoria.
Fourth, as you travel around the world, this gesture may help you slip out of the prickliest of difficult situations.
What is this singular signal, this miracle mien, this giant of all gestures?
It is quite simply, the smile. Use it freely, use it often.