Imagine you are driving down a busy city street, (not very difficult if you live in Los Angeles). You are trying to pass into the next lane and just before you do, another driver cuts in front of you and forces you to slam your breaks to avoid hitting their car. In this moment adrenaline and testosterone rush to your brain, making you more alert to the physical world around you and also more aggressive. With your window already down there is nothing blocking your impulse from shooting your middle finger out in the direction of the driver who cut you off. It is not an unfamiliar reaction. This is what pure communication looks like.
No words were exchanged, no sounds were made but your message was send directly to the person you were trying to reach by way of visual cue. It might not be the message you would want to send if you were taking the time to think about politics but since the message was not hindered by the need to translate thought into words it was very potent. When our emotional reactions pass through our mind they are filtered by so much on their way to becoming words. But, when we translate from emotion directly to gesture there is less filtering.
A gesture is, in some ways sign language short hand. They are not quite reflex actions, that occur autonomously like smiles (happy), nostril flares (angry), and tears (upset). Conversely, they are not exactly words that we completely conscious of sharing. It may help to look at communication from the standpoint of a glass window. A window with a tint, is opaque from one side and transparent from the other direction so only one side of the story is being told. A frosted window is translucent so that neither side can clearly what is going on with the other. There is of course clear glass that is transparent on both sides. Reflex actions offer the most transparent communications but they are often unsophisticated messages, simple emotions that can be easily communicated. Words give us the option to be completely opaque with devices like secrets and lies. Gestures kind of relay a translucent communication, amplified and more complex than a simple expressions but still not as sophisticated as words.
Flipping someone a middle finger, substituting verbal communication is not only way that gestures are used. When someone says “I love you THIS much.” There is no way to know how much “love” they are trying to express with out the gesture to accompany the statement. If their arms are fully extended then you know it is a lot, but if they have their fingers pinched together then its not very much at all. The use of gesture in conjunction with our words can be effective to add layers to communication and make things more clear. However, we do find that they can also confuse the message that is trying to be conveyed if the physical and verbal signals are not aligned. Have you ever seen some one say “yes” but shake their head left and right, that is a perfect case of mixed signals.
This adds a completely different element to the gesture process because just as words have both a collective meaning, and a personal one, gestures do as well. Unlike auto responses like smiles and tears, that tend to be consistent across many cultures, gestures are far more culturally influenced and learned. The example of the middle finger that is used to express “fuck you”is not consistent in other cultures. There are several other ways to communicate the same thought that are used as well. By recognizing that our gestures are by-in-large habit we are able to see that they can also be shaped. New reflexes can be adapted to response to changes in emotion much more easily than with autonomous reflexes. How gestures become a part of our vocabulary can be changed as well by making individual changes throughout our culture.
We have the ability to begin a change in how we habitually respond to each other with not only our gestures, but our words as well. Along with this ability is the potential to improve the potency of our communications, achieve greater transparency, and more robust human connection.