Kinesics is the study of bodily movement, including gestures, posture, and movement of the head, arms, legs, or torso (Birdwhistell 1970). Some scholars also include facial expression and eye behavior as kinesic behavior. However, because these behaviors are discussed elsewhere on this website, this article focuses primarily on gestures and bodily movement.
In their classic work, Ekman and Friesen (1969) argued that kinesic behavior can be distinguished on the basis of origin. Some kinesic behaviors are symbolic because there is an arbitrary association between the behavior and the referent (what the behavior refers to). For example, an up-and-down head nod means “yes” in many places around the world. However, the relationship between nodding and the word “yes” is arbitrary; indeed in some regions nodding to one side means “no” rather than “yes.” Like language, symbolic nonverbal behavior developed within specific cultures. Other kinesic behaviors are iconic, meaning that the nonverbal behavior resembles the referent. Pointing to the left when giving directions, reaching up to show how tall someone is, and pretending to swing a bat are all examples of iconic kinesic behavior. Because these behaviors resemble their referents, they are more easily understood across cultures than are symbolic behaviors. Finally, intrinsic behaviors, such as crying and smiling, have biological origins and often reflect people’s internal states. Intrinsic cues are therefore the most easily understood across cultures.
Ekman and Friesen also identified five general categories of kinesic behavior: emblems, illustrators, affect displays, adaptors, and regulators. These categories are based on the origins and usage of kinesic behavior. The five categories provide a useful framework for organizing both classic and contemporary work that examines how kinesic behaviors function in interpersonal and intercultural communication contexts.
Emblems are symbolic forms of kinesic behavior that function to substitute for or repeat verbal communication. Emblems are culturally specific and operate independently of speech. Take the following gesture as an example: the thumb and index finger are shaped in a circle while the other three fingers are pointed up with the fingertips curved slightly downward. This gesture means “A-OK” or “all is good” in the US, “money” in Japan, and “worthless” in France. It is also an obscene gesture in some parts of the world. Similarly, the US “come here” gesture (which involves moving one’s fingers and palm back and forth toward one’s body) means “good-bye” in regions of Italy, China, and Colombia. In Algeria, the wave that signals “good-bye” and “hello” in North America and parts of Europe means “come here.”
As these examples illustrate, emblems have direct verbal translations. Like most verbal communication, emblems are processed primarily digitally (as a single word or phrase) in the left side of the brain rather than holistically as most other nonverbal messages are. Although emblems become symbolic within a given culture, they often have iconic origins. For instance, the “A-OK” gesture used in the US resembles the letters “O” and “K.” This same gesture represents a coin, the number “zero,” or private body parts, which correspond to various meanings of the gesture across the globe. Thus, although emblems become symbolic when they are integrated into the communication system of a particular culture, they often start out as iconic representations of the idea or object they represent.
Emblems substitute for spoken words when verbal communication is difficult or awkward. For instance, verbally saying good-bye to someone who is beyond the security checkpoint at a busy airport would be difficult, if not impossible. Waving accomplishes the goal of saying good-bye much more efficiently. Similarly, obscene gestures are often used to convey negative affect in situations where it would be difficult or inappropriate to verbally confront someone (e.g., while driving). Emblems can also serve a bonding function for couples and groups. Secret handshakes, emblematic signals between members of a minority group, and private messages communicated via gestures all send messages of solidarity.
Illustrators typically complement or clarify parts of a verbal message by adding description or emphasis. Examples include pointing in a certain direction, drawing something in the air, showing height or width, and pretending to kick a ball. Batons or punctuation gestures are a specific type of illustrator that emphasizes words or phrases. When people move their hand up and down while making an important point, they are using a baton gesture. Illustrator gestures are often iconic, making them somewhat interpretable across different cultural contexts. Yet there are cultural differences in how people use illustrator gestures. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, South American, and Caribbean cultures display more frequent and expansive gestures than people from central Europe, northern Europe, and North America. Thus, the former cultures are regarded as more kinesically expressive. Kinesic expressiveness appears to be learned. For example, second-generation Italian Americans use fewer illustrator gestures than do first-generation Italian Americans, presumably because they have adopted the norms of the new culture.
Illustrators also send messages related to dominance and liking. Burgoon et al. (1996, 315) noted that “Large, sweeping gestures extend the individual’s spatial sphere of control and add an air of dynamic energy,” as do pointing gestures and a rapid walking pace. Other studies have shown that along with smiling and eye contact, illustrator gestures are a primary nonverbal cue associated with liking (e.g., Palmer & Simmons 1995). Illustrator gestures are also a nonverbal immediacy cue that shows interest and enthusiasm.
Affect displays show emotion. As such, they are often intrinsic and understood across cultures. Planalp et al.’s (1996) research demonstrated that people rely on four types of kinesic cues to decode the emotional states of others: facial cues (e.g., rolling eyes, smiling), body cues (e.g., clenching fists, jumping up and down), activity cues (e.g., throwing things, going for a walk), and physiological cues (e.g., blushing, crying). Of these kinesic behaviors, people rated facial cues as the most important indicator of emotion, followed by body cues, physiological cues, and activity cues. All four of these kinesic cues were rated as more important for decoding emotion than was verbal communication. When people recognize that another person is experiencing an emotion, they often respond by showing emotions themselves. Motor mimicry occurs when a person displays emotion in response to something that happens to another person, such as wincing when a girl skins her knee or smiling when a colleague wins an award (Bavelas et al. 1986). Emotional contagion occurs when people “catch” the emotions of others, often through mimicking kinesic behaviors (Hatfield et al. 1994).
Research has also examined profiles of kinesic behavior associated with specific emotions (Guerrero & Floyd 2006). Affectionate emotions such as love and liking are associated with mutual gaze, smiling, general facial pleasantness, head tilts, direct body orientation, forward lean, and reinforcing head nods. During courtship, attraction is communicated via many of these cues plus primping or preening (e.g., touching up one’s makeup or standing more upright) and demure downward gaze. Liking and equality are also communicated through postural congruence, which occurs when two people share the same posture or position, such as sitting with their legs crossed the same way or walking in unison. Hostile emotions, such as anger and contempt, are associated with attacks on objects (e.g., pounding a tabletop, slamming doors), furrowed brows, tight muscles, heavy walking or stomping, clenched teeth or jaw, threatening gestures, clenched hands or fists, defensive behaviors (e.g., arms crossed against chest), lack of eye contact, and the “evil eye.” Sadness is associated with narrowed or dull eyes, frowning, trembling mouth, jutted or trembling jaw, downward glances, reduced eye contact, slumped posture, defensive body positions, and less overall gesturing.
Adaptors are idiosyncratic behaviors that help people release tension and feel more comfortable. These behaviors are typically used when people are bored, nervous, or physically uncomfortable. People often control their use of adaptors in public, especially when other people are watching them. Adaptors have been classified into three subcategories. Self-adaptors involve manipulating one’s own body, such as twisting a strand of hair, or biting one’s nails. Object-adaptors involve manipulating an object that a person is wearing or holding, such as tugging on an earring or repeatedly tapping a pen on a tabletop. Alter-adaptors involve correcting another person’s appearance (e.g., tucking a tag into someone’s shirt collar; licking one’s finger and removing a smudge on a child’s face). Because alter-adaptors involve invading someone’s personal space, they can be perceived as threatening, leading to angry responses. However, when a person welcomes alter-adaptors, this acceptance usually signals that a relationship is intimate.
Adaptors can signal nervousness or boredom. Conversely, a lack of adaptors can reflect composure and confidence, especially when complemented by illustrator gestures. Relaxation and composure are communicated nonverbally through a set of nonverbal behaviors that includes less random leg and foot movement, fewer adaptors, less swiveling, more body openness, and more expansive gesturing. This same combination of kinesic cues is associated with perceptions of dominance.
Regulators function to manage interaction by initiating, maintaining, and ending interaction. Common kinesic behaviors that help initiate interaction include forward leans, walking toward someone, and making eye contact. Common leave-taking behaviors, which signal a person’s desire to end an interaction, include decreasing gaze (which is sometimes preceded by mutual gaze), facing away from a partner, gathering possessions, and looking at one’s watch or a clock. When a receiver fails to recognize a person’s leave-taking attempts, the person in the leave-taking position sometimes displays adaptors, such as tapping one’s foot. Similar behaviors have been reported during conflict situations when one partner wishes to withdraw from the interaction. Studies examining demand– withdrawal patterns in marital interaction have shown that husbands who withdraw exhibit more head turns away from their wives, less gaze, more head-down positions, and fewer open body positions. People also use adaptors when trying to withdraw from conflict.
Kinesic behavior also helps regulate turn-taking. People who want the conversational floor engage in behaviors such as leaning forward, raising one’s hand, opening one’s mouth slightly, and nodding rapidly. When people wish to relinquish their speaking turn, they often lean back and settle into a relaxed position and/or gesture toward the person who should speak next. People subtly refuse speaking turns by sitting back and nodding slowly to encourage a speaker to continue talking. Importantly, the ability to control the conversational floor is related to power and dominance. As Cappella (1985, 70) stated, power can be established and maintained “by controlling one’s own and others’ ability to present information.” Kinesic regulators are one key to obtaining this type of control, just as kinesic cues in general are a critical component of effective interpersonal communication.
- Bavelas, J. B., Black, A., Lemery, C. R., & Mullett, J. (1986). “I show you how I feel”: Motor mimicry as a communicative act. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 322 – 329.
- Birdwhistell, R. L. (1970). Kinesics and context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
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- Cappella, J. N. (1985). Controlling the floor in conversation. In A. W. Siegman & S. Feldstein (eds.), Multichannel integrations of nonverbal behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 69 –103.
- Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding. Semiotica, 1, 49 – 98.
- Guerrero, L. K., & Floyd, K. (2006). Nonverbal communication in close relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2005). Nonverbal communication in human interaction, 6th edn. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth.
- Palmer, M. T., & Simmons, K. B. (1995). Communicating intentions through nonverbal behaviors: Conscious and unconscious encoding of liking. Human Communication Research, 22, 128 –160.
- Planalp, S., DeFrancisco, V. L., & Rutherford, D. (1996). Varieties of cues to emotion in naturally occurring situations. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 137 –153.