Basic Gestures in Nonverbal Communication

A gesture is the verbal or nonverbal body movement used to express or emphasize an idea, an emotion, or a state of mind.

Gesture is defined as ‘visibly bodily action by which meaning is represented’ (Kendon, 1983). This includes manual gestures, movements of the whole body (shoulder-shrug), head movements (nodding) and facial expressions (smiling), postures (spatial distance), and ‘clothing cues’ (neckwear) (Givens, 1999).

Gesticulation is a form of nonverbal communication. Gestures convey messages. They are voluntary (and sometimes involuntary) movements we make with the fingers, hands, arms, legs, head, or other parts of the body in a way that conveys meaning, either in conjunction with verbal communication such as frowning while saying harsh words against someone, or in isolation such as smiling at a stranger to express pleasure at ones presence.

Gestures usually serve one of the following purposes. They can be used to emphasize, clarify, or amplify a verbal message, such as when we point to a chair while offering someone a seat. They can regulate and control human interaction, such as nod of agreement while someone else is speaking. They can also display affect or emotion: like making a fist with one hand and hammering the open palm of the other to prove insistence (See Sussman and Deep, 1989).

When gestures are used in conjunction with verbal messages; they are often simultaneous with the words they illustrate or come slightly before them.

People vary in the amount of gesturing they use. According to Desmond MorrisOpens in new window, there are two kinds of gestures—hand movements that accompany and reinforce the meanings of spoken words, and symbolic or emblematicOpens in new window gestures that have meanings or provide information.

Scientific evidence suggests that gesturing while engaged in heavy cognitive activity, such as explaining a financial ratio, literally takes a load off our minds. Below are some prevalent workplace gestures used around the world.

Evaluation, boredom and impatience gestures
An image depicting boredom and interested gestures
Fig 1. An image depicting boredom and interest gestures

When the listener begins to use his hand to support his head, it is a sign that boredom has set in. The degree of the listener’s boredom is related to the extent to which the arm and hand are supporting the head. A hand fully supporting the head is a sign of extreme boredom and lack of interest. On the other hand, genuine interest is shown when the hand is on the creek, not used as a head support.

Again, the drumming of the fingers on the table or a continual tapping of the feet on the floor signals impatience. The listener who displays such gestures is in fact telling the speaker that it is time to bring the speech to a close. It is worth noting that the speed of finger or foot-tapping is related to the extent of the person’s impatience—the faster the tapping, the more impatient the listener has become.

An image depicting evaluation gesture
Fig 2. An image depicting evaluation gesture

You may have at some point come across your boss sitting with fingers closed into a fist and resting the cheek, index finger pointing upward. To say it in plain words, your boss is conveying an evaluation gesture and may have been trying to estimate the potentiality of a proposal or perhaps the credibility of your report! The moment your boss begins to lose interest in what you are saying, the position will alter to a position in which the heel of the palm supports the head.

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Leg position
An image depicting leg positions
Fig 3. An image depicting leg positions

Leg position can also convey various messages. Uncrossed or open legs may convey an open, relaxed state of mind or a ‘who-cares-who-is-around’ attitude depending on who adopts this gesture and under what circumstances.

Someone who has their ankles crossed may be unconvinced or confused. Someone who has their knees crossed may be attempting to lend firmness to their otherwise saggy, fatigued body posture in an attempt to display interest, attentiveness, and an energetic state of mind.A crossed thigh position is normally adopted by someone who is extremely relaxed and unbothered.

The movements and alignment of our body give us powerful means to communicate nonverbally. There are different cue categories of body movements. Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen identify five categories of nonverbal behaviour that we can use to describe bodily cues—emblems, illustrators, regulators, affect displays, and adaptors. Let’s explore each in turn!


Emblems are deliberate movements of the body that are consciously sent and easily translated into speech, such as a wave that means “come here,” a thumbs-up gesture that means “okay,” and a wave that means “hello” or “good-bye.” Oftentimes, we use emblems when noise or distance makes it less feasible that we will be understood through the use of words alone. Traders on the floor of a stock exchange and sports umpires and coaches on the playing field use emblems regularly; for them, emblems compose a gesture system.


Illustrators are bodily cues designed to enhance receiver comprehension of speech by supporting or reinforcing it. As we do with emblems, we use illustrators consciously and deliberately. For example, when you give someone directions, you use illustrators to facilitate your task. When you want to stress the shortness of a member of a basketball team compared to the average height of team members, you use your hands to emphasize the difference.

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Regulators are cues we use intentionally to influence turn taking—who speaks, when, and for how long. For example, gazing at someone talking to you and nodding your head usually encourages the person to continue speaking, while leaning forward in your seat, tensing your posture, and breaking eye contact traditionally signals that you would like a turn. If we ignore or remain unaware of another’s use of regulators, the other person may accuse us of rudeness or insensitivity. Your use or misuse or regulators reveals much about your social skills.

Affect displays

Affect displays are movements of the body that reflect emotional states of being. While our face is the prime indicator of the emotion we are experiencing, it is our body that reveals the emotion’s intensity. Typically, we are less aware of our affect displays because often we do not intend to send many of them.

People who “read” our bodies on the basis of its demeanor can judge how we genuinely feel. For example, you might describe another person’s body as slumping and defeated, still and motionless, relaxed and confident, or proud and victorious. Those of us who characteristically show a lack of affect or feeling make it especially difficult for others to relate to us meaningfully.

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Adaptors are unintentional movements of the body that involuntarily reveal information about psychological state or inner needs, such as nervousness. They include nose scratches, hand over lips, chin stroking, and hair twirling. Individuals interacting with use or observing us interpret these as signs of nervousness, tension, or lack of self-assurance.