Monday, December 22, 2008

Sometimes a tie is just a tie

I learned something interesting today. In a book on body language, underneath a picture of a man stroking his cheeks (with one hand – you know the gesture), we are informed that one of the meanings of this gesture is that "the person has been successful in an undertaking in the former Yugoslavia." I had no idea that body language could be so specific!

Okay, they probably didn't mean it that way. But the interest of this book is indeed the cross-cultural variety of meanings of various gestures. It certainly isn't the surprising amount of material which is blindingly obvious to anyone who's ever participated in an actual conversation in the USA. "Sadness is generally betrayed by the mouth, which tends to droop at the corners, so emphasizing the generally slack and unanimated appearance of the face. The lips may quiver if you are on the verge of tears." Who is this book for, anyway? Escaped androids from an MIT lab?

There's also a fair amount of what strikes me as dime-store evo-psych just-so stories. "A domineering speaker raises a forefinger and beats it up and down in an action that is symbolic of a stick (or an ape's overarm blows) pummeling an opponent into submission." Beating, okay, but why the ape? Or this one: a female courting signal is that "the woman might [look] at the man over a raised shoulder for longer than people normally look at each other," which does indeed sound seductive (imagine Keira Knightley doing it, for example), but here's the explanation: "Self-mimicry; the shoulder resembles the breast and so is sexually inviting" – which, well, I dunno.

Back to ambiguous cross-cultural gestures. The one in which the head is "jerked sharply backwards" (I think I've seen this one in the movies – "ehh!") is negative in southern Italy, as I would have expected, but it means "yes" in Ethiopia. No wonder those two countries couldn't get along! Also, the authors acknowledge that some gestures are inherently ambiguous. Under "male courtship signals," one such gesture is indicated, followed by a few "possible alternative meanings" in parentheses:
Straightening the tie (nervousness; habit; tie might need straightening).
You think??


Anonymous said...

Those were funny explanations...

Living in one part of former Yugoslavia, what I can confirm is that I have heard older people using the term "hitting/knocking himself on the chests" (meaning, he is taking the credits for something). What I can't remember is if I have actually seen people doing it.

N. N. said...

Does the book discuss cross-cultural gestures that have the same meaning?

I've recently had occasion to think about Wittgenstein's quotation of Augustine at the beginning of the PI. Augustine says of his elders: "Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something." I wonder how extensive such a language is (at the very least it includes the 'gestures' of crying, smiling and laughing; but perhaps these aren't gestures at all). In particular, I wonder if pointing is the same for all cultures.

Duck said...

Tanasije: that's interesting. I've seen people bang their chests - like apes do, come to think of it - but the book didn't mention that one. (American) football players do this a lot, e.g. after they make a good play.

N.N.: Of course I see why you ask this! (I haven't read your recent post yet though.) A lot of the book (it's a short book with lots of pictures) is about supposedly cross-culturally similar gestures (thus the evo-psych explanations), with some exceptions. It's hardly exhaustive (thus the title: "Body Language 101"). It's an interesting question how far we should push the analogy with natural language - especially given that a lot of it is unconscious and some even involuntary. And of course it doesn't have a syntactic or semantic structure!

Anonymous said...

Mmm, dreaded evolutionary psychology. There was just an article on this terrible field in Scientific American: