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Are some human gestures universal?

Translating and interpreting involve navigating the complexity of spoken languages. But are there ways to communicate certain basic concepts that any human would inherently understand?

This is a question raised by a recent study conducted by the University of St. Andrews’ Kirsty E. Graham and Catherine Hobaiter. The study invited participants to watch a series of videos of our fellow great apes, bonobos and chimpanzees, making common gestures, and then to choose the meaning of the gesture in each video from a series of selected responses. More than 50 % of answers were correct. This suggests that humans may no longer use these gestures but that we do continue to understand them.

The results of the study are fascinating on their own, and they also raise some important questions about communication. Notably, if human beings can recognize certain primate gestures, does this mean that certain gestures are universal among humans, regardless of the language they speak and the culture they come from?

The study’s participants were gathered from around the world, and excluded anyone who had worked with apes or who was under the age of 12. But besides that, there doesn’t seem to be an indication of participants’ countries or languages of origin. This would have been helpful to know when it comes to getting answers to our question.

But that being said, other studies have found that there might indeed be universal human gestures -- at least, in a very broad sense.

For example, in a fascinating article examining the history of studying and comparing human gestures, cognitive scientist Kensey Cooperrider points out (to use an appropriate phrase) that humans in all known cultures use fingers to point, not toes. Additionally, the index finger is usually used, although in some cultures there are different types of pointing to convey different concepts. Cooperrider also writes that certain cultures use finger pointing in addition to pointing with the head or facial gestures.

Similarly, all cultures seem to show “yes” and “no” by a movement of the head. But not all cultures do this in the same way. Several other examples seem to follow this pattern. And so, Cooperrider concludes:

“[A] reasonable guess is that…gestures around the world exhibit constrained diversity….On the one hand, several general methods of gesturing – signaling ‘yes’ and ‘no’, pointing, depicting, conjuring metaphors in the air – appear to be universally used and in constrained ways. On the other, when we dig into the details of precisely how such methods are deployed, we find unexpected texture.”

That said, despite subtle differences in some of the most basic human gestures, Cooperrider also writes that studies have shown that humans can overcome a communication barrier most easily through gestures. Studies have found that vocalization used with gestures doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, and of course talking without using gestures wouldn’t help at all if two humans don’t speak the same or a similar language.

So, gestures are the best way to overcome a language barrier among humans.

Interestingly, some linguists and anthropologists also consider facial expressions and other indicators of emotions as gestures, as well. In this case, there’s evidence that the physical signs of some emotional responses might be universally understood.

Among experiments conducted in this line of study, videos of a man from Cambodia’s Kreung hill tribe, a remote community that has little contact with the rest of the world, were shown to students at the US’s Dartmouth University. The man was shown performing a number of emotional reactions whose meanings the students had to guess. 85% of students could identify the emotions this man from a completely different culture was conveying.

Then, videos of an American woman acting out certain emotional reactions were shown to members of the Kreung tribe. This experiment also showed a high rate of accurate responses.

That said, emotional gestures can’t be entirely relied on for communication; even a smile, which many people consider a universal gesture, can be interpreted differently or made more or less frequently depending on a person’s culture.

When it comes to complex communication, languages are a gift for humanity. But while not all gestures are used or understood the same way in each culture, it’s nice to know that in many cases, when all else fails, just pointing a finger can be understood as well (or nearly so) as a phrase in a fellow human’s native language.

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Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg

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