Reflections: Why do People Talk With Their Hands?

Why do People Talk With Their Hands?
By William L. Bulla
Weekly Contributing Writer

When people talk to others, they often gesture with their hands. I'm accustomed to that, but then I observed something that had never caught my attention before. Several weeks ago, I was sitting in a restaurant and I noticed five different individuals holding one hand at their ear while wildly gesturing with the other one. They were talking on their cell phones. I could not hear what the people were saying, but I could see their movements. Then I realized that they were making visual statements through gestures, even when their listener could not see them. Did you ever wonder why people still "talk with their hands" when they're on the telephone? Or were you like me, and really never noticed anyone doing it. Perhaps I did the same thing when on the phone, but now I am so aware of the situation, I can't catch myself doing it.
Someone told me it's natural because "gestures are processed in the same area of our brain as speech." Are we, for the benefit of the listener, visually illustrating the point that we are trying to get across verbally? So, what are we doing with these hand movements? Does waving our hands about help us to think? Do we get so immersed in talking that we forget that the listener is not in front of us and cannot see us? Some hand gestures are communicative by convention. Gestures allow people to communicate at long distances where their voices might not carry. A wave of greeting, a thumbs-up sign indicating approval, or connecting the thumb and forefinger in a circle and holding the other fingers straight, to signal the word okay; are all examples of conventions that have been established to communicate whole phrases in a gesture. .
Here are some of the hand gestures I have observed people using while speaking on phones. Crossed fingers are used to superstitiously wish for good luck. Cuckoo sign by making a circling motion of the index finger at the ear or side of the head signifies that the person "has a screw loose," i.e. is speaking nonsense or is crazy. Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down are gestures of approval or disapproval made by extending the thumb upward or downward. Throat slash is made by moving one's finger across one's throat; the gesture imitates cutting a person's throat with a blade. The gesture indicates strong disapproval, or displeasure with others.
Hand gestures not only communicate a message to the listener, but also reflect the thoughts of the person who is gesturing. But, while gestures may reflect an individual's thoughts or knowledge, we still don't know exactly why people gesture. Nor do we know why some people gesture more frequently than others do.
But to observe people talking on telephones while making these gestures, seem a little strange. Research has shown that such gestures do more than add visual emphasis to our words. One interesting role of gestures is that they can help people find a word. We all have had the experience of knowing what we want to say, but not being able to find the word. This kind of tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can be quite frustrating at times. Gestures can sometimes help us out with that.
But to observe people talking on telephones while making these gestures, seem a little strange. And, it is conceivable that people gesture on the telephone because they always gesture when they speak spontaneously. They simply cannot suppress it, because they have been doing it since childhood.

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.