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The Impact of Gesture From Leader to Group


Communication can be roughly defined as the transfer of meaning from one individual to another. The tricky part about this is that the ideas held in one person’s brain and made clear through their actions and speech are not necessarily the ideas the other person receives as a result of these same actions and speech. This general definition also illustrates that the idea of communication is not limited to the words and sounds that humans have developed as a means of expressing their ideas but can also extend to gestures and behaviors. Persons of any race, personality, background, or gender utilize an assortment of speech and conversational skills in an attempt to communicate appropriately in a specific situation. However, as these elements of nonverbal communication are studied, it is shown that the means people use to communicate differs from the spoken language that they use and the cultural meanings assigned to specific movements.

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The idea of the word ‘gesture’ can have almost as many meanings to the individual as the gestures used to communicate ideas. For this discussion, however, the term gesture will refer to specific body movements of primarily the hands and arms that work to convey specific feelings, ideas, intentions, or attitudes.

Although they can be used to completely replace speech, such as in a signal sent across a room from a coach to a player to shoot the basketball in a mimed action, it can also be used to enhance speech by providing visual clues as to what is coming up next or to demonstrate an action or quantity (Nelson, 2004). Whether we use gestures consciously or unconsciously, participate in large or small movements, we all express at least some of what we have to say through the use of gestures which are necessarily governed by our gender and the culture in which we were raised.

Individual gestures

Like verbal speech, the language of gestures changes from one culture to the next. While one symbol might be universally accepted as meaning ‘Okay’ in one culture, it can be used to express the most indecent actions in another. Not only individual gestures, but gesture styles differ across cultures as well so that a person growing up in Italy might demonstrate widely flailing arms and hands as a natural part of their speech while another person, raised in a strictly Jewish urban setting, might demonstrate very small, clipped emotions held close into their chests. It is hypothesized that these cultural differences in gestural styles have something to do with the space in which the culture traditionally moves as well as the importance they place on emotional content and expression and the degree to which they were required to either efface or promote themselves within their given group. Whether large or small, global or individual, these gestures can have a tremendous impact upon the reactions a leader within an intercultural setting might receive from his group as several gestures have taken on wide cultural meaning. For example, steepling, an action that involves placing the fingertips of each hand together in a pyramidal formation typically covering the face, “is a control, power and status gesture employed primarily by men. The hands cover the face, so facial expressions are obscured” (Nelson, 2004) at the same time that the hands convey a sense of power in the balanced structure of the pyramid. Other hand-to-face gestures such as beard stroking can communicate the message that serious thought is being given to something in constant motion, indicating thought in action. To help understand the meanings of these gestures, several studies have been conducted regarding the impact of the gesture on the group and the individual, particularly as they differ from one culture to another.

Racially inherited?

Early studies on gesture focused on the idea of whether gesture signals were racially inherited as a sort of rudimentary instinctual language.

These studies were reported in “Gesture, Race and Culture” (Elfron, 1941). This study was designed to prove that the gestures commonly used in Jewish as opposed to Italian discourse were not inborn, but rather learned communication styles that were a direct result of their culture and environment. Efron discovered that though both cultural groups used gestures vigorously, they were distinctive in the ways they used their head, body, and hand motions as well as in the point of action. The study showed that those raised in a Jewish cultural environment tended to use arm motions that were primarily initiated from the elbow through the hand. The upper arms were generally held closer to the sides of the body. Efron suggested the reason for this communication style was predominantly the result of the cramped living quarters many Jewish people occupied within the upper east side of New York. This was different from the nonverbal communication styles of the Italian cultural group who, the study argues, were more accustomed to wider spaces. These people tended to display very fluidly, expansive movements that remained open and welcoming to the world. In addition, Efron determined that the first three generations of immigrants would retain strong ties to the gesture styles of the home country, but the more integrated they became with the American environment, the more they would adopt a more generic style to the area in which they live.

Within this study, although not addressed, is the suggestion that the gestures one makes are suggestive of the culture as a whole – Italians being thought of as welcoming and open-hearted and the Jewish people as confined, closed-in and secretive – while also being suggestive of something different to those within the culture itself (i.e. Jewish people likely do not consider actions developed from the elbow to indicate a secretive, closed-in nature).

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Focus of research

Emerging from this type of study, several schools of thought regarding the role of nonverbal communication in everyday communication patterns have been developed. A number of them have been compared within a study conducted by Charles Duke entitled “Nonverbal Behavior and the Communication Process” (1974). Rather than limiting the discussion to a single field, such as psychology, though, Duke explored the meaning of gesture through a variety of fields. “Members of the psychological school view nonverbal communication as simply the expression of emotions, but those individuals in the communicational school – mainly anthropologists and ethnologists – are concerned with behaviors of posture, touch, and movement as they relate to social processes like group cohesion and regulation” (Duke, 1974). As a result of this comparison, Duke illustrates that these studies are themselves flawed in the way in which their approach tends to limit and shape understanding as well as by the cultural background and understanding of the interpreters. However, Duke also illustrates that even within an intercultural group setting it remains largely recognized through the cultures studied that the natural leader will tend to gravitate toward the end position of the meeting table or the more elevated positions within a given environment while the more vocal participants tend to move toward the center of a table or meeting space. These nonverbal clues thus emerge as being nearly universal perhaps due to simple logistics – the person in the center of the room has a greater chance of being heard by all while the person at the end of the room or in the higher position has a greater chance of commanding attention without peripheral competition. As will be seen in several other studies, the context of the nonverbal meanings must always be taken into context with the culture of the individual displaying them as well as the context in which they are made for accurate interpretation.

Relationship between speech and gesture

Researcher Adam Kendon explores how speech and gesture are integrated to present a coherent meaning as well as how these meanings are different depending upon the culture involved in his article “Gesture” (1997). For his study, Kendon conducted a microanalysis of communication that was video-recorded for this purpose. “The microanalysis made possible by audiovisual recording technology of the relationship between speech and bodily movements reveals that speech and gesture are produced together and that they must therefore be regarded as two aspects of a single process” (Kendon, 1997). Within the study report, Kendon provides examples of how the gestures used during recorded conversations function to more clearly define meaning, such as the huntsman slicing open the wolf’s belly in Red Riding Hood or the staves holding up the branches of the pear trees that are heavy with fruit, but also how these gestures had to be thought of before the words they helped illustrate to get the arms and hands in their proper positions for the movement. This suggests a preparation process in operation before the speaking engagement rather than a spontaneous communication combination. While this study helps illustrate how gesture might be consciously used during communication as an attempt to clarify meaning, particularly in an intercultural setting, it does not shed light on whether or how nonverbal communication is used within the intercultural setting spontaneously.

Art as a clue to intercultural use of nonverbal communication

Some of the best examples we have that gesture can and does convey sometimes even more meaning than speech can be found in art, which is the ultimate communication of multiple cultures throughout sometimes very lengthy periods. E.H. Gombrich (1966) points out how art builds upon direct observation of life, often using the symbols seen in everyday communication to imbue images with specific meaning and emotion. “It makes use of gestures that have their meaning in human intercourse. The gesture of the oath is quite an interesting case” (Gombrich, 1966). Although he details the various features of the oath-taking gesture, this discussion goes to great length about how these gestures are different from or similar to those gestures that are seen as particularly powerful or directive gestures.

For example, part of the gesture being discussed includes an upraised arm with two fingers extended. The author argues that while this can be seen as an oath-taking gesture symbolic of old days when the oath-taker would reach forward to lay their fingers upon the holy relic upon which they’re swearing, it has also been interpreted in modern times as the symbol of blessing extended by the holy man over his flock. In this respect, it is as much a gesture of benevolent leadership as it is a gesture of fealty. At the same time, this gesture uses two fingers to prevent it from turning into a point. “Children are still taught, I believe, that pointing is rude because in some form it implies a command, a sign of dominance universally understood” (Gombrich, 1966). Gombrich even mentions the importance the famous Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci placed upon the gesture, advising artists to “take pleasure in carefully watching those who talk together with gesticulating hands, and get near to listen what makes them make that particular gesture” (Gombrich, 1966). This highlights how nonverbal communication has been a source of study for generations.

Where nonverbal communication is learned

In Charles Galloway’s study entitled “The Challenge of Non-Verbal Research” (1971), he outlines the various problems inherent in trying to decipher nonverbal behavior, what creates the meanings, when they are used and how they are different from verbal communication. In this discussion, he lists several activities that are learned early in the teacher/student relationship that doesn’t seem to spring from any specific source yet have widespread meaning in most developed countries. “Certain sets of cues and responses are learned by teachers and students as part of their role-taking activities in the classroom” (Galloway, 1971). These actions include the habit of teachers to snap their fingers in a noisy classroom as a more effective means of gaining attention than shouting over the noise or of holding a finger to their lips to indicate she wishes the students to fall silent. Other gestures that have been observed in teachers on a widespread basis include crossing their arms in front of their chest as a symbol of disapproval, staring at students for lengthy moments as a means of indicating a negative impression, and pointing to students to gain their attention. Students, on their part, have shown a widespread understanding that the best way to get the attention they desire is to raise their hands above their heads while in the classroom and are often observed participating in this same activity outside of the classroom when they have something they wish to say. “These signals are well understood by students and any observer can see the results” (Galloway, 1971).

Gestures continued into adulthood

In a special report by Kendall Zoller (2004), it was revealed that a large proportion of adults still follow the rules they learned in the classroom, which comes as a great advantage for those who wish to discover more about how gestures mean different things to different cultures. Studies he quotes indicate that 82 percent of the communication that happens in the classroom is nonverbal and hand gestures used in conjunction with speech help listeners remember the message much longer than speech alone. Studying the gestures used in the classrooms of various regions was considered an effective means of discovering gestures that might have near-universal significance.

In doing so, Zoller indicates there is a particular type of hand gesture that is proven effective in gaining the greatest degree of attention in the shortest period in an intercultural group. This is a gesture he refers to as the frozen hand. “This skill is best used during a pause. When a speaker holds the same hand gesture throughout a pause, it indicates to the group that more information is coming. It can also indicate that the next item is more important than the previous item” (Zoller, 2004). In addition to learning the importance behind the gesture of holding up a non-moving hand, Zoller’s report provides a clue as to how to analyze nonverbal language.

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The strength of gestures

Julius Fast reveals the degree to which nonverbal communication can convey messages as he illustrates how a superior in an office complex, not wearing any styles or symbols of rank, was able to convey the sense of superiority to others in his book Body Language (1970). According to Fast, the study utilized silent films depicting two actors, one playing the part of a visitor and the other playing the part of a company executive shown to audiences who were then asked questions regarding how they ‘read’ the scene.

Several patterns emerged from the answers provided. According to the researchers, the visitor was seen to have the least status when he stopped just inside the door and talked to the executive from across the room and most status when he walked right up to the desk before speaking. “Another factor that governed status in the eyes of the observers was the time between knocking and entering, and for the seated executive, the time between hearing the knock and answering. The quicker the visitor entered the room the more status he had. The longer the executive took to answer, the more status he had” (Fast, 1970, p. 48). These factors boil down to a question of who controls the territory with the speed and depth of penetration indicating the personal status and position of both parties. In addition, Fast discusses the importance of positioning in establishing status. As a gestural move, the leader might purposefully place himself at a lower level than his subordinates to help them feel more confident and dominant or suggest a more comfortable setting in which to discuss issues to encourage less formal conversation.

Nonverbal miscues

A survey of previous literature on the subject offered by Ridgeway et al in “Nonverbal Cues and Status” (1985) indicates the most important nonverbal clues that signify one person as being of higher rank than another exist primarily in eye contact and verbal clues within most societies. The first of these cues, eye contact, was seen in the varying level, length, and type of eye contact made among groups of equal status, inequal status, and in dyads of male/female or dominant/minority culture.

In these studies, the person making eye contact more frequently both while listening and while speaking demonstrated the higher rank. Equal status participants tended to make eye contact less frequently when they were speaking than when they were listening and low-status individuals tended to make infrequent eye contact when speaking. Verbal cues were focused on especially in terms of the rate of speed with which the participants spoke as well as how quickly they responded to being spoken to by someone of higher, equal or lower rank. The higher the status, the quicker the individual begins to take part in the general discussion or problem-solving scenario.

Several gestures are believed, within the western culture, to denote power and status, but that end up portraying a different conception. These gestures are discussed in some detail in Nick Morgan’s “When Body Language Lies” (2002). Because of the tendency of Prince Charles to stand with his arms behind his back, Morgan says a large number of people in the western business world felt this posture was a stance of power. However, because we can’t see what the hands are doing, this posture induces a deep-seated sense of mistrust. Steepling, on the other hand, the action of touching the hands to the lower part of the face, does not automatically indicate the intellectualism that is often intended but does have leanings in that direction. A final cultural myth is that high-status people initiate instances of touching with subordinates, such as a pat on the shoulder. “The research shows that in almost all cases, lower-status people initiate touch. And women initiate touch more often than men do” (Morgan, 2002).


While there have been numerous studies conducted on the various elements of nonverbal communication in a variety of settings, it can be seen from this overview that there remains much that is unknown. In “An Agenda for Gesture Studies” (2003), Adam Kendon outlines several areas in which gesture studies still need to be conducted. One of these areas that need further explanation and study includes how people determine which actions are conscious motions associated with what is being said and which are random movements of the body that have little or nothing to do with the context. Another concern exists in the so-called ‘gesture phrases’ in which an action or series of actions take place between one position of rest and another in conjunction with phrases of speech. In discussing the importance of understanding the uses of gesture and the significance of the gesture, Kendon indicates that the more abstract the concept behind the gesture becomes, the more generally accepted a gesture will be within the wider culture. Related to this is the question of how well individuals can divorce themselves from their cultural expectations when dealing with people of another culture to more accurately assess the other’s nonverbal cues. Arguing that gestures are at a level of control that is more conscious than the level of emotions, Kendon indicates the degree to which they are less conscious than the use of speech could provide important clues as to how much they convey what the speaker is saying and, by extension, the degree to which they interfere with intercultural understandings.


Duke, Charles R. (December 1974). “Nonverbal Behavior and the Communication Process.” College Composition and Communication. Vol. 25, N. 5: 397-404.

Efron, David. (1941). Gesture, Race, and Culture. New York: King’s Crown Press.

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Fast, Julius. (1970). Body Language. New York: M. Evans and Company: 48-51.

Galloway, Charles. (1971). “The Challenge of Nonverbal Research.” Theory into Practice. Vol. 10, N. 4: 310-14.

Gombrich, E.H. (1966). “Ritualized Gesture and Expression in Art.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Biological Sciences. Vol. 251, N. 772: 393-401.

Kendon, Adam. (1997). “Gesture.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 26: 109-128.

Kendon, Adam. (2003). “An Agenda for Gesture Studies.” Semiotic Review of Books. Vol. 7, N. 3. Web.

Morgan, Nick. (2002). “When Body Language Lies.” Working Knowledge. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School. 2009. Web.

Nelson, Audrey. (2004). You Don’t Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes. New York: Prentice Hall: 183-189.

Ridgeway, Cecilia L.; Berger, Joseph; & Smith, LeRoy. (1985). “Nonverbal Cues and Status: An Expectation States Approach.” The American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 90, N. 5: 955-78.

Zoller, Kendall. (2004). “Keeping an Eye on the Hand: Nonverbal Communication is Part of a Leader’s Arsenal.” National Staff Development Council. Vol. 25, N. 1.

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