Body Language 98 Head Shaking While Talking

October 30, 2020

There is an interesting form of body language that some people do while they are talking. It is moving their head from side to side. I am not sure what the origin is, but I see it in some commercials where people are advertising a healthcare service.

My guess is that the gesture is intended to make the person speaking seem to be more believable or genuine. It may be interpreted as being sincere, as in saying, “We are going to take good care of your mother.”

The gesture can also be observed when people eat particularly delicious food. I suppose the meaning is, “I can’t believe how good this Key Lime Pie tastes.”

You also see the gesture used in politics, particularly by female politicians. Two people I have seen do this on numerous occasions are Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. It seems incongruous because, for most people, moving the head from side to side is thought to mean “no,” but these women use it to appear more credible.

The gesture is also commonly used to convey disbelief. If someone is telling you a tall tale about how he ate two gallons of ice cream in one sitting, you might be shaking your head slowly from side to side in disbelief. Remember the old adage, “never eat anything bigger than your head.”

The gesture, as with many other parts of body language, is culture specific.There are some cultures where the gesture is seen much more often than in the USA and with a different meaning. For example, in some southern European Countries such as Albania or Bulgaria, the gesture means “yes” rather than “no.”

Another interesting observation is that when babies are hungry for breast milk, they nod their heads up and down, but when they want to reject the breast milk they move their heads from side to side. Of course, babies do not have the cultural programming for gestures that come along later in life.

Another variant of the side to side head gesture is the Indian or South Asian Head Bobble. Here the head does move from side to side but it sort of rocks or tilts back and forth on top of the neck. In these cultures, the gesture is very common, and it can mean different things based on the context. One common meaning is, “I understand.” Another meaning can be, “Thank you.” If done slowly and with a slight frown, it often means, “I respectfully decline.”

Look for the head shaking gesture, and when you see it, look for other clues, such as the configuration of the mouth or the position of the eyebrows. These secondary clues can help you determine the true meaning of the gesture in that instance. Of course, the context of what is going on also will give you valuable insights.




This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”



Body Language 70 Talking With Your Hands

March 5, 2020

Most of us make hand gestures while we are talking. The vast majority of the time when we talk using our hands for emphasis, we are unaware we are even doing it. The hand movements are just a natural way to assist us in communicating meaning.

This brief article examines the phenomenon of hand gestures while talking and suggests some guidelines that may be helpful for your professional and personal life.

The major variable in hand gestures to emphasize verbal communication is the amount that is done. Some people have almost no hand animation, regardless of the topic, and other people gesture practically for every syllable of every word. That frequency can get tedious for the listener very quickly.

An extensive study was reported in HuffPost where people studied thousands of Ted Talks and counted the number of hand gestures in the standard 18 minute length. They found that the most popular speakers made an average of 465 gestures in their talks while the least popular speakers averaged less than half that number.

This research indicates that giving 2-3 hand gestures for the average sentence helps listeners stay interested in the subject. But if we have 10-15 gestures in an average sentence, that constitutes an overload situation. People will eventually tend to tune out.

If you want to view the frequency of hand gestures and count for yourself, just listen to a political debate. Since the stakes are high and the participants are vying for the most attention, the gestures are usually more frequent. The gestures get more frequent as the level of tension increases. Also, since debates are usually done before a large audience, that also encourages large hand gestures to animate the points being made.

Hand gestures enhance story-telling, because they make the subject come alive more than just the plain words would do. Suppose you are describing the difference between a huge military vessel and a tiny fishing boat. If you hold your hands out wide apart for the former and just use your thumb and first finger to illustrate the smaller boat, people will grasp the meaning easier. Experienced and professional story tellers use their entire body to emphasize their points rather than just their hands.

Some people are clumsy with hand gestures and do not have a congruent presentation. Suppose you were using words that describe a swan floating gracefully in the water, but your hand gesture was of a chopping motion with a vertical hand. The meaning would be difficult to interpret. Some people are frequently not congruent with words and gestures, and it ultimately leads to a lowering of trust just the same as if the facial expressions are not consistent with the words.

Gestures originate in the Broca’s area of the brain located on the left side of the brain and part of the frontal lobe. We also use this area of the brain to decode the gestures of others. If a person has suffered a brain injury, it may be more difficult to give consistent signals or to understand the signals of others. If you see someone who frequently misuses gestures or often takes things the wrong way, that person may have suffered a brain injury from a fall or a crushing hit in football.

Another aspect of gesturing while talking is to be alert for the imaginary box that is bounded on the sides by your shoulders, on top by your chin, and on the bottom by your belt line. If the majority of your gestures are inside the box, then they will not be viewed as “over the top,” On the other hand, if you are prone to fling your arms out to the maximum length as you communicate, people will think you are an “out there” kind of personality.

One person who has a habit of flinging her arms to the maximum extent is Elizabeth Warren. If you view her in a debate situation, you will see a good example of extreme gesturing. That habit is neither good nor bad; it is just her way of communicating. If most people used that much emphasis for key points, it would become a much more animated world.

You also need to take into consideration the relative size of the other person when you talk using gestures. If a large imposing person uses wide gestures when addressing a much shorter person or a child, the result can be highly intimidating for the shorter person, and it may result in a lowering of trust.

Since most of the time you are not consciously aware of your gestures, it would be a good idea to pay attention to your pattern in different circumstances. How many gestures do you use when you have an argument with your kids? How many do you use when you are describing a particularly bad storm? How many do you use when trying to communicate information with people at work?

In this regard, professional speakers have an advantage. They frequently have recordings of their talks, so they can gauge the level of gesturing they use and moderate it as appropriate to become more polished.

You can benefit just by paying attention to your hands as you monitor your communication effectiveness more consciously. It will allow you to improve your connectivity with people and raise the level of trust you are able to achieve with them.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”