Hand Gestures - Emblems (Part 1)

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Illustrators(Part 1, Part 2) | Affect Displays (Part 1, Part 2) | Regulators (Part 1, Part 2) |


The first group of kinesics we want to look at is emblems,

This group is the most evident type of gestures we have. because:

A. We invented emblems, we're not born knowing them - we absorb them through our culture by interacting with others.

B. We use them with full conscious awareness.

Emblems are our substitutes for actual words, just like the sign language blind people use. Of course, we're not adept as them in communicating through motions but we can learn it quickly enough and adapt it to our needs.

I personally learned many hand signs during my military service. Infantry troops are trained to use and understand many hand gestures so they can follow commands through silent motions when discretion is needed. Some gestures were silent commands, others provided valuable information about what lies ahead.

Still, we have one big problem with emblems when we try to interpret them:

We need to take it in context

Maybe you're tired of hearing this, but context is key in nonverbal communication, especially when it comes to emblems - hand gestures that depend on customs and social background.

I mentioned that we invented these gestures - but it doesn't mean everyone got the same manual!

This mean what you might take for granted in your home, can mean something entirely different in another place.

note: Don't think that there's only one universal sign language, but 200(!) of them:


to be or..

If only..

Image Source

The good news are that we still have many things in common globally: like understanding pointing, an gesture that universally means “look there!” -  an important concept when danger is imminent.

But all in all, you need to keep an open mind and adapt yourself to your environment, it's quite foolish to ignore local customs just because you know differently. Communication after all is about understanding - if you know how to act around foreigners, or at least accept their ways - you create a bridge to their way of life and thought.

Remember also that cultural differences are not the only factor that can change the perception of gestures.

look at the photo below:

What does this gesture means? Probably it has something to do with her having a new theory or idea, an "eureka" moment, right?

But what if she was wearing nun's robes? The message was probably somewhat different - something to do with divine power (although I admit she looks a little too enthusiastic to be a stereotypical nun). And if it was in a classroom then she was asking a question, or trying to answer one.

To sum this up - sometimes, context is everything.

Common Ground

If you think about the 2 characteristics of emblems I mentioned it's easy to understand why such gestures make us feel unique and connect easily to people in our own culture.

If we use the same gestures - we speak the same language - we start to think the same way, it's our common ground. These signs help create a collective identity, a society with similar habits and way of life.

No wonder that the role of such gestures is often to create bonds, a source of pride and belonging to a certain group.


●       The special signals, greetings and handshakes of gang members help to identify members and show empathic bonds.

●       Teenagers who invent their own special signals with their peers to ridicule others outside of their group.

●      A gesture can be an appreciation or admiration signal to a certain team or band (just like “the horns” gesture we’ll talk about later)

So if you're an outsider, you have much to gain by learning the symbols used by others. Not only they will understand you better, but they will also appreciate your effort of learning their gestures and being like them, you create an instant connection.

(of course there are exceptions, don’t give in for EVERY peer pressure - if everyone jump from the roof don’t jump straight after them, but maybe ask them what's the rush…).

Jumping off roofs:

Wait for me!

Image Resource

Moving On

Continue to the second part of Emblem Gestures here.

Or to any other part of the series:

Hand Gestures - Basics

Illustrators (Part 1 | Part 2)

Affect Displays (Part 1 | Part 2)

Regulators (Part 1 | Part 2)


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