thumb ones nose



A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication made with a part of the body, used instead of or in combination with verbal communication. The language of gesture allows individuals to express a variety of feelings and thoughts, from contempt and hostility to approval and affection. Most people use gestures and body language in addition to words when they speak. The use of gesture as language by some ethnic groups is more common than in others, and the amount of such gesturing that is considered culturally acceptable varies from one location to the next.

Types of gestures

Gestures do not have invariable or universal meanings. Even simple gestures like pointing at someone can give offense if it is not done correctly. In the USA and western European countries it is very common for people to point with an extended finger but in Asia this is considered very rude (see Etiquette in Asia for details) and it is safer to use the whole hand.

Different types of gestures are distinguished. Well-known type of gestures are the so-called emblems or quotable gestures (see the examples below). These are culture-specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words. Communities have repertoires of such gestures. A single emblematic gesture can a have very different significance in different cultural contexts, ranging from complimentary to highly offensive

Other types of gestures are the ones we use when we speak. These gestures are closely coordinated with speech. The meaningful part of the gesture is temporally synchronized (that is, occurs at the same time) with the co-expressive parts of speech. For example, a gesture that depicts the act of throwing will be synchronous with the word 'threw' in the utterance "and then he threw the ball right into the window." Other gestures, like the so-called beat gestures, are used in conjunction with speech and keep time with the rhythm of speech to emphasize certain words or phrases. These types of gestures are integrally connected to speech and thought processes.

Studies of gesture

Gestures have been studied throughout the centuries from different view points. Quintillian in the antiquity studied in his Institution Oratoria how gesture may be used in rhetorical discourse. Another broad study of gesture was published by John Bulwer in 1644. Bulwer analyzed dozens of gestures and provided a guide on how to use gestures to increase eloquence and clarity for public speaking. Today, one of the most prominent researchers in the field of gesture research is Adam Kendon. He has investigated many aspects of gestures, including their role in communication, conventionalization of gesture, integration of gesture and speech, and the evolution of language . Other prominent researchers in this field include Susan Goldin-Meadow and David McNeill. Susan Goldin-Meadow (2003) has investigated intensively the role of gesture in problem solving in children. David McNeill (1992, 2006) has developed a broad theory about how gesture and speech are part of a single thought process.

Social significance

Gestures play a major role in many aspects of human life. Gesturing is probably a universal, there has been no report of a community that does not gesture. Gestures are a crucial part of everyday conversation such as chatting, describing a route, negotiating prices on a market; they are ubiquitous. Gestures have been documented in the arts such as in Greek vase paintings, Indian Miniatures or European paintings.

Gestures play a central role in religious or spiritual rituals such as the Christian sign of the cross. In Hinduism and Buddhism, a mudra (Sanskrit, literally "seal") is a symbolic gesture made with the hand or fingers. Each mudra has a specific meaning, playing a central role in Hindu and Buddhist iconography. An example is the Vitarka mudra, the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist teaching. It is done by joining the tips of the thumb and the index together, while keeping the other fingers straight.

Hand gestures

Hand gestures, i.e., gestures performed by one or two hands, is the most numerous category of gestures due to the ability of the human hand to acquire a huge number of clearly discernible configurations, the fact of importance for the sign languages. The latter ones are not discussed in this article.

Body gestures

This is moving the body in a certain way when orally communicating.


Mooning is the act of displaying one's bare buttocks by lowering the back side of one's trousers and underpants, usually without exposing the genitals. Mooning is used in some cultures to express protest, scorn, disrespect, or provocation. It can also be done for shock value


Anasyrma or "lifting the skirts" is a gesture traceable to European antiquity. It is used in connection with certain religious rituals, eroticism, and lewd jokes.

The "peacock"

Expresses superiority or domination combined with a certain degree of smug arrogance. Performed by pushing the chest up and out at the front as well as tilting the face slightly upward. This may be accompanied by motions of hooking both thumbs under one's lapels or suspenders even if they are not present.

Head/face gestures

Facial expressions

Facial expressions are a rich language in their own right and will not be discussed in this article. Some facial expressions are byproducts of emotions, while others, such as winking or eye-rolling are akin to gestures.


Rotating the eyes upward generally signals condescension, contempt, boredom, or exasperation. It can be interpreted as the equivalent of saying, "I don't like this" or "I think this is really stupid" or "I simply can't believe this.

See also: eye roll test


A nod is a gesture of confirmation in many cultures and negation in some (e.g., in Bulgaria and Sri Lanka).

Head bobble

Head bobble, i.e., repeated alternating tilting of the head to the left and to the right in arcs along the coronal plane, means disapproval in some cultures, e.g., in the East Slavic culture. T

Head shaking

Repeated turning of the head side to side in arcs along the transverse plane has a meaning opposite to the nod: negation in many cultures and confirmation in some.

Bent head

A gesture of shame, subduing, or agreement/confirmation. An interpretation depends on the way it being performed and overall body context. Or, can be used as a greeting.

Pointing by chin

A direction may be pointed by chin, e.g., when the arms are doing something else: the head is turned in the corresponding direction and the chin is slightly jerked up and in the pointed direction. This is also used as a greeting in some regions in the U.S., usually among young men.

Greeting by nod

A single nod of the head, (one single cycle in image-pitch) characterizes a greeting gesture.

Thumb the Nose

Brushing the thumb against the nose is a 'tough guy' gesture usually meant to provoke another.

See also


  • Bulwer, John (1644). "Chirologia: or the Naturall Language of the Hand" (London,1644)
  • Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2003). The resilience of language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. In the Essays in Developmental Psychologyseries (J. Werker & H. Wellman, Eds.). New York: Psychology Press.
  • Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2003). Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Johns, C. (1982). Sex or Symbol. Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. London: British Museum Publications.
  • Kendon, Adam (ed.) (1981). Nonverbal Communication, Interaction and Gesture: Selections from Semiotica (Vol.41, Approaches to Semiotics). The Hague: Mouton and Co. [Includes as an Introduction by Kendon an extended critical survey of methodological and theoretical issues in the field].
  • Kendon, Adam (1997). Annual Review of Anthropology. 26: 109-128.
  • Kendon, Adam (2000). Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity. An English translation, with an Introductory Essay and Notes of La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire Napoletano ('Gestural expression of the ancients in the light of neapolitan gesturing') by Andrea de Jorio (1832). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
  • Kendon, Adam (2004). Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • McNeill, David (1992). Hand and Mind. What Gestures Reveal about Thought. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • McNeill, David (2005). Gesture and Thought. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Kita, S. (ed.) (2003). Pointing: Where Language, Culture and Cognition Meet. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, ISBN 0-8058-4014-1.

External links

  • International Society for Gesture Studies(ISGS) is an international scholarly association devoted to the study of human gesture. The ISGS organizes conferences and supports the Journal GESTURE.
  • McNeill Lab Center for Gesture and Speech Research David McNeill's Lab homepage: The Center for Gesture and Speech Research at the University of Chicago studies speech and gesture from a psycholinguistic perspective. The page provides lots of useful information about gesture analysis.
  • The Goldin-Meadow Lab Susan Goldin-Meadow's Lab homepage. The lab is composed of graduate students and researchers pursuing independent topics related to cognition, development, education, linguistics, and various other fields, but interrelated by the lab's main focus - the study of non-verbal communication, specifically gestures.
  • The Nijmegen Gesture Center (NGC) at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics studies the role of gestures in psycholinguistic processing, communication and interaction, acquisition, cognition, and neurocognition.
  • Journal GESTURE is a scholarly Journal that publishes articles reporting original research, as well as survey and review articles, on all aspects of gesture.
  • Publications by Adam Kendon (field data, research techniques and theory of gesture and sign languages)
  • A Nice Gesture Many stories and anecdotes on gestures.
  • A Repertoire of South African Quotable Gestures, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.
  • Handspeak Sign languages, gestures, body languages, Baby Sign, International Sign, and more. Paid site with limited content for free.

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