Let Your Hands Speak Louder Than Your Words

When we explain things verbally to others, our hands jump in automatically to help...

Don't believe me? Try describing a watermelon to a person who's never seen one before without using your hands. (I'll wait...)

See, it's much harder when you can't use your hands to represent things, like the watermelon's size and shape.

Now, try to explain how you would eat that watermelon. You may notice your hands use action gestures to represent the knife that cuts through the melon.

You might use structure gestures to show the size of the piece you'd plan to eat, and then more action gestures to show how you would eat the watermelon.

Assuming your gestures accurately match the fruit and actions you're describing, the other person would get a pretty good understanding of a watermelon and how to eat one without ever having seen one.

When I think about using hand gestures to communicate, Italians quickly pop into my head. Italians are famous for using their hands to help illustrate their ideas and feelings. And sometimes, a simple gesture – like kissing pinched fingers before raising them to the sky – can stand alone, replacing words entirely.

Now, before you send us an angry e-mail about stereotyping Italians, there's good science to back this up...

A 1995 study in the Journal of Pragmatics used video recordings of natural conversations that took place in Southern Italy, near Salerno, to explain the meanings behind four common gestures of people who live there...

According to the study, the "purse hand" gesture and the "praying hands" gesture are used to represent the speaker's intentions – like their emotions or the true feelings behind the message. The "finger bunch" and the "ring" – formed by joining the tips of the two thumbs and the two index fingers – are used to represent the position or location of something.

Nonverbal declarations – like hand gestures and facial expressions – are vital aspects of communication... perhaps even more so than words themselves at times.

In 1967, Dr. Albert Mehrabian (psychology professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles) developed the 7%-38%-55% communication rule.

Dr. Mehrabian conducted two studies to determine whether attitude and emotion are better conveyed by the words we speak, the tone in which we speak those words, or the facial expressions that accompany the message.

From his experiments, Dr. Mehrabian determined that just 7% of a spoken message is accurately expressed and perceived through the words we choose to use. However, our tone of voice conveys 38% of that message, and our facial expressions convey the remaining 55% of the message.

Dr. Mehrabian's study has its limitations, though... namely that this rule cannot be applied to all kinds of communication. For example, nonverbal cues (like rolling your eyes) can't come through a phone line. But his work helps illustrate the point that it's often not what you say, but rather how you say it that counts.

In fact, good communication relies on the use of all four of its main forms: verbal, nonverbal, written, and active listening.

Research has long found that when we communicate information about objects in space, planning, action, location, and how objects relate to one another (known as spatial information), we spontaneously use hand gestures to help us get our point across.

Turns out, when using our hands to gesture, the type of gesture we use matters too, as we see demonstrated in a 2016 study published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications...

University of Wisconsin researcher Seokmin Kang and Stanford and Columbia affiliated researcher Barbara Tversky (wife of the well-known psychologist Amos Tversky) investigated the differences between using gestures that represent structure (i.e. "the compartment is this big") and those that represent action (i.e. "air travels this way through these compartments") when explaining how four-stroke engines work to a group of 59 university students.

Kang and Tversky found that the action gestures lead participants to form a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the complex engine when compared to the participants that viewed the structure gestures, as evidenced by the following data...

During the "test your knowledge" portion of the experiment, the two groups were asked to draw reproductions of the engine. Those in the "action" group produced more visual components (average of 18.38 versus 15.77 observed in the "structure" group), more action arrows (average of 7.48 versus 5.77), and showed more action effects (average of 2.28 versus 1.37).

When asked to explain how the engine works, those in the action group produced an average of 19.97 invented gestures and 6.76 imitated gestures to aid in their explanations. The structure group produced an average of 15.76 invented gestures and 4.38 imitated gestures. Kang and Tversky determined that this difference indicated a much deeper and more comprehensive understanding for the people in the "action" gestures group.

Therefore, if you want to be understood better by the people around you, do like the Italians do and animate your words by talking with your hands. I use my hands to create openness or to close down a space when I'm speaking with someone.

When you do speak from the wrists, be sure to consciously and carefully choose the appropriate hand gestures to best aid in your descriptions.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 28, 2021