Laurie Toby Edison

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Unexplored Territory: Body Language and Gesture

Laurie and Debbie say:

Debbie went today to a dance performance by Nina Haft and Company (along with Pappas and Dancers, and the Al-Juthoor Palestinian Dabkeh Dance Troupe). The whole performance was excellent, but what caught Debbie’s imagination was a Nina Haft piece called “36 Jewish Gestures.” (Among other things, this piece is a comment on a Joe Goode dance called “29 Effeminate Gestures,” which is described in detail here.

This performance art piece combined traditional and ritual Jewish gestures (such as a man putting on phylacteries or a woman throwing her shawl over her head to grieve) with cultural American-Jewish gestures such as a particular tilt of folded hands or a very eloquent shrug. At one point in the piece, Haft played a voice-over recording of herself reading about some gesture research by anthropologist David Efron (scroll down to find Efron’s work). Want to know how obscure this is? David Efron does not even have a Wikipedia page (neither does his collaborator, Stuyvesant van Veen, apparently well-known among other things for his detailed drawings of human movements). Here’s one illustration van Veen did for Efron’s work:

line drawing of moving gestures

Efron studied the use of gesture of two ethnic groups in New York City: Jewish Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and immigrants from southern Italy. Using drawings, photography, and film, Efron
and his colleagues found some significant differences. The Italians, for example, used both arms, generally needed more space for their gesticulation, and stood mostly apart from one another. In contrast, the Jewish immigrants gestured mostly in front of their faces or chests, stood together in small groups, and touched one another frequently.

This is interesting in and of itself, but what struck Debbie at the time was how unfamiliar this kind of analysis of gesture and body language is. Although there is a body of research on this subject, it’s obscure and incomplete. Every freshman psych class has a section on body language, always pointing out (correctly) that body language is an enormous component of human interaction. Often they will demonstrate how one phrase can have two (or more) entirely different meanings based on body language.

But, in the academic world where words are the key currency, detailed analysis of body language is rare indeed. Simply refining out gestures as a specific kind of body language is uncommon. (Even the evolutionary psychologists who claim to be able to analyze all kinds of things about women’s sexuality by their body language don’t get careful and specific–in their case, it’s probably because specificity would prove them wrong.)

One stereotype that Haft (unwittingly) underscored was that gestural language is somehow the provenance, or at least the expertise, of the Mediterranean cultures. On the contrary, it is a staple of all cultures. Laurie points out that not only body language but also gesture are found regularly in Japanese conversation and interaction. The dense cultural communication in Japanese bows is a language in itself. And one only has to enter an American corporate boardroom to see an different language of gesture.

Is it, perhaps, time for the Department of Body Language and Gestural Studies? Or (maybe better) for some non-academic observation of the huge array of topics such a department might cover?

4 Responses to “Unexplored Territory: Body Language and Gesture”

  1. Lori S. Says:

    I actually worked as an undergraduate (for $, not as coursework) with a bunch of psychologists at the U of Chicago who were studying nonverbal language in various contexts. They had developed a very interesting and detailed coding scheme to capture gestures. They also worked a lot with sign languages.

    I loved sitting in on their department meetings. Definitely fascinating stuff.

  2. Etooz Says:

    Coming from an Italian family, almost all of us gesticulate feverishly in conversation. I never took this for a stereotype, it’s just what we do. I think it’s kind of funny, actually. This post was fascinating.

  3. Twistie Says:

    All my life, I’ve been sort of an instinctual mimic. I pick up accents to the point where I’ve had natives of the countries ask me what part of: Germany, Scotland, England, and Sweden I come from when I’ve actually lived my entire life within a hundred miles of the San Francisco Bay.

    I wouldn’t be aware I was picking up the accents until someone mentioned it, though. It’s never been a conscious thing at all.

    What was interesting was when I met Mr. Twistie’s mother, who was originally from Japan. I actually felt my body language start to change. I don’t think she thought I was deliberately mimicking her, since she decided that first night that her son had found himself a good woman. She even gave me the ‘one day all this will be yours’ speech about three weeks later. The last time I saw her, just hours before she died of lung cancer, she looked utterly delighted. Considering she’d seen me nearly every day for months, I think she knew this was our last meeting and she was glad of one more chance to spend time together.

    I wonder how much of it had to do with how I comported myself that first night.

  4. Lizzie Says:

    I’m not sure this is as un-studied as you think. Our friend Greg has a couple of books about this including one of Russian gestures that we once took turns trying to imitate. It was fun!

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