The term was first used (in 1952) by Ray Birdwhistell, a ballet dancer turned anthropologist who wished to study how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement. Part of Birdwhistell's work involved making film of people in social situations and analyzing them to show different levels of communication not clearly seen otherwise. The study was joined by several other anthropologists, including Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.
Drawing heavily on descriptive linguistics, Birdwhistell argued that all movements of the body have meaning (ie. are not accidental), and that these non-verbal forms of language (or paralanguage) have a grammar that can be analysed in similar terms to spoken language. Thus, a "kineme" is "similar to a phoneme because it consists of a group of movements which are not identical, but which may be used interchangeably without affecting social meaning" (Knapp 1972:94-95).
Birdwhistell estimated that "no more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words." He also concluded that there were no universals in these kinesic displays - a claim disputed by Paul Ekman's analysis of universals in facial expression.
A few Birdwhistell-isms are as follows:
In one current application, kinesics are used as signs of deception by interviewers. Interviewers look for clusters of movements to determine the veracity of the statement being uttered. Some related words may be:
Kinesics are an important part of non-verbal communication behavior. The movement of the body, or separate parts, conveys many specific meanings and the interpretations may be culture bound. As many movements are carried out at a subconscious or at least a low-awareness level, kinesic movements carry a significant risk of being misinterpreted in an intercultural communications situation.