Listen to your body talk
Linguist Kashmiri Stec has been fascinated by the complexity and beauty of signing and body language since she was a bachelor student.
Gesturing is not something extra when it comes to communication. She found that it’s a fundamental part.
It’s not just Italians or South Americans who use gestures: everybody does. The only difference is that some people use bigger gestures, while others do it closer to their body.
It’s not limited to the hands, either. The whole body gets involved: head, eyes, torso and even the space around you.
Stec’s focus was on one particular use of body language, namely what happens when we tell a story and quote someone or something.
Just like signers, everybody uses a role shift when quoting, she found. People more or less ‘enact’ the person they quote.
Gesturing isn’t taught in schools. However, it might add an extra layer to communication that can be very helpful in some cases, be it aphasia patients or politicians and storytellers.
Reading time: 7 minutes (1427 words)
She was a mere bachelor student at UC Berkeley when she fell completely and utterly in love. Not with some guy she’d just met: no, Kashmiri Stec had just walked into a room of linguists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists and even musicologists, all studying body language and gesturing. They were discussing videos of people talking and they started discussing what they saw in depth.
Stec saw something too, then and there: the words and semantics she had been studying until then were only part of human communication. She saw how the whole body gets involved when we speak and even the space around it. ‘It was completely beautiful’, she says, still in awe, even though the event happened years ago. ‘Especially with the signers, there’s such a precise use of space and the body. To see what people were capable of and how they express themselves and what kind of nuances were possible, what kind of things were evoked… I was really struck by how incredible it is.’
People often think that gesturing is only the icing on the cake of communication. It looks nice and may be helpful in certain cases, but it’s just something extra. That’s not true though, argues Stec, who received her PhD this week for her research on the way people use gesturing and body language when quoting someone or something. ‘It’s a fundamental part of human communication. The difference is that communication through words is taught and improved in schools, while gesturing is something you just do.’
It’s odd when you think about it, because everybody uses body language. The myth that some people, for instance Italians, gesture a lot and others, such as the Japanese or Scandinavians, don’t do it at all is exactly that: a myth. ‘Everybody uses gesturing and body language. The only difference is that the Italians use bigger gestures and more space, while the Japanese do it close to their body. But everybody gestures.’
Stec herself is the living embodiment of her words. Every word, every comment is underlined with her hands moving – ‘beautiful things, those hands. They have these wonderful moving parts called digits that give you so many possibilities’ – her eyebrows lifting, her head tilting. ‘What you are studying kind of seeps into you.’ She never appears overactive or nervous, just expressive.
‘I love communicating without words’, she says. ‘I remember I was back in San Francisco for Christmas and my mother took us looking at holiday decorations at a time when everybody else was doing the same thing. You couldn’t hear anything, but we needed to talk about where to go next. I was just looking at my mom, raising an eyebrow, like a question and pointing, and she completely followed it. But my poor boyfriend is still not used to following gesture-only communication. He really needs speech.’
Tilt your head
During her research, Stec’s focus was on one particular use of body language: what happens when we tell a story and quote someone or something. We already know that signers use something called ‘role shift’. They act out the person they quote by breaking eye contact and looking somewhere else, physically shifting their body and signing from the perspective of the other person. ‘It looks totally different.’
However, Stec found that role shift is not something that only signers do. ‘When you walk into the right Dutch conversation, you see people do it too. Or when you watch Ted talks, especially the more narrative stories. It’s a very nice rhetorical strategy of showing different aspects of the character you’re quoting. Whenever there’s a quotation, there’s some kind of demonstration on the body accompanying it.’
Sometimes that’s very pronounced, and the whole body is involved: face, torso, hands. In other cases, it may be much smaller. ‘Maybe you just shift your gaze to the side, or tilt your head a little bit’, Stec says.
Before she started, she expected that there would be a difference between people: that some did it more than others, or perhaps women would do it more than men. She saw footage that suggested that, but when she watched the videos frame by frame, she found that this was not the case at all. ‘The only thing that matters is whether there is a quotation or not, and what kind of quotation it is.’
Changing your voice
People ‘act’ more when they quote fictively – like when they tell a story about an ad with a coffee cup saying ‘drink me’ or when they ‘quote’ an animal – than they do with regular quotations, like ‘John came up to me and said, ‘It’s a beautiful day’’. Also, when quoting a dialogue, the role shifting goes back and forth: the storyteller will change his own role only minimally, whereas the ‘other’ gets a lot of drama attached: people will use their whole body, making themselves bigger or smaller, changing their voice and or their posture to actually impersonate the person they’re quoting. ‘We even use gestures to help us solve a difficult problem, like a math problem or thinking through a difficult line of reasoning. You will do things with your hands to help you through it’, says Stec.
It’s all really beautiful to watch, she argues. Research done by her colleagues has been focused on the hands, but when you look closely, there is much more going on. Not gesturing even seems impossible. ‘Good luck trying that’, she says with a smile.
One of Stec’s favourite experiments is one with two people sitting in a room and being asked to sit on their hands. ‘What you see is that they start pointing with the nose and the head or the shoulder. Some people use their feet. People get very creative. They have to express something, somehow.’
Primates gesture too
Body language might even be a form of communication that’s more deeply embedded in humans than speech. When gestures and speech mismatch, like when you say, ‘go right’ yet you point left, it’s usually the gesture that gets it right. Some researchers believe that language evolved from gesturing. ‘Primates gesture in ways similar to humans and are able to slowly learn some sign language, but their vocal cords are not developed enough to talk.’
Yet we’re not taught anything about it in school, unless you are taking acting classes. That’s a shame, since gesturing and body language add an extra layer to communication that can be very helpful in some cases. People who have suffered brain trauma and have aphasia often have trouble uttering words. Stec saw video material that clearly showed how they use the body as a supplement and the person they were communicating with really catching on to the extra information the gestures gave them.
‘You can use it for different ways of public speaking, too’, Stec says. ‘Just like Ted talks. The more narrative the story gets, the more possibilities there are to use the body.’
Look like other people
Not being aware of your body language can work against you, too. It’s something you might see when a politician is interviewed and feels he’s in a hostile situation. ‘They lean over, sometimes even touch the interviewer, trying to dominate the space. They are in somebody else’s space all the time. To me, that feels very uncomfortable’, Stec says.
Training body language for performers, storytellers and politicians might help them avoid that. A friend of Stec’s already does that with politicians who are in social democratic parties, a view she happens to agree with. ‘She teaches them to use the body and gestures to be a more effective communicator. When you see the before and after videos, then they gesture very differently and they look like other people.’
There’s still too much we don’t know, Stec says. Spoken language has handbooks, grammar and fixed sets of rules. For body language, there’s no such thing. ‘We watch videos and we learn, but there are so many possibilities and so much we don’t know yet. The kind of precision of spoken language, the way words, sentences, sounds and ideas relate, is just not there yet.’
The research that has been done up until now has focused on what people do. Adding research to what people perceive might be the next step. Stec thinks we can get there. ‘Once you get that precision, I can imagine teaching this kind of thing in school.’