Elizabethkuhnke's Blog

Kinesics: The Categories of Gesture

Posted on: May 10, 2011

The American anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell was a pioneer in the study of non-verbal behaviour. He labelled this form of communication ‘kinesics’ as it relates to movement of individual body parts, or the body as a whole. Building on Birdwhistell’s work, Professor Paul Ekman and his colleague Wallace V Friesen classified kinesics into five categories: emblems, illustrations, affective displays, regulators and adaptors.

Kinesics convey specific meanings that are open to cultural interpretation. The movements can be misinterpreted when communicating across cultures as most of them are carried out with little, if any, awareness. In today’s global environment, awareness of the meanings of different kinesic movements is important in order to avoid sending the wrong message.

  • Emblems

Emblems are non-verbal signals with a verbal equivalent. Emblems are easily identified because they are frequently used in specific contexts. The person receiving the gesture immediately understands what it means.


The raised arm and tightly closed fist. Generally the fist is used as an expression of solidarity or defiance. In 1990 Nelson Mandela walked free of prison holding this position.

The Sign of the Cuckold. Your index and little fingers are extended pointing forward with your palm facing down, making ‘horns’. Your thumb crosses over your two middle fingers. You’re telling an Italian that his partner’s been unfaithful. In Texas, this gesture is the sign for the fans of the University of Texas Longhorns football team.

Because of different interpretations of the same gesture between cultures, the correct reading is dependent on the context in which the signal occurs.

  • Illustrators

Illustrators create a visual image and support the spoken message. They tend to be subconscious movements occurring more regularly than emblematic kinesic movements.

Example: Holding your hands apart to indicate size

The usage of and amount of illustrators used differ to culture to culture. In general, Latinos use illustrators more than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, who make more use of illustrators than many Asian cultures. In some Asian cultures, extensive use of illustrators is often interpreted as a lack of intelligence. In Latin cultures, the absence of illustrators indicates a lack of interest.

  • Affective displays

Affective displays tend to be movements, usually facial gestures, displaying specific emotions. They’re less conscious than illustrators and occur less frequently.

Example: Expressions of love, frustration, or anger.

A lack of affective displays doesn’t indicate a lack of emotions. Cultural considerations determine what is considered t0 be acceptable behaviour. A person from Japan expressive anger shows significantly fewer affective display movements than his Italian counterpart.

  • Regulators

Regulators – body movements that control, adjust, and sustain the flow of a conversation – are frequently relied on to feedback how much of the message the listener has understood.

Example: Head nodding and eye movements

Because of cultural differences in the use of regulators, the way in which people respond to the flow of information can be confusing. A misinterpreted regulatory signal in international politics and business can lead to serious problems.

  • Adaptors

Adaptors include changes in posture and other movements made with little awareness. These body adjustments are to perform a specific function, or to make the person more comfortable. Because they occur with such a low level of awareness, they’re considered to be the keys to understanding what someone really thinks. Adaptors principally comprise body-focussed movements, such as rubbing, touching, scratching, and so on.

Example: Shifting body and/or feet position when seated.

The significance given to adaptors may be overstated as well as oversimplified. Many adaptor movements, such as shifting position while seated, may be simply a way of resolving a specific physical situation, such as being uncomfortable, rather than revealing emotions and attitudes.

For more information visit www.kuhnkecommunication.com

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1 Response to "Kinesics: The Categories of Gesture"

just give exmples of how it can be apply in a business setting.

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