Talking Hands: Cultural Codes in Hand Gestures

Summary: A new study confirms Italians gesture more than Swedes, but more importantly, it reveals the diverse functions and frequencies of gestures across cultures. Analyzing storytelling methods, the study found Italians favor pragmatic gestures to guide narrative flow, while Swedes prefer representational gestures to depict actions and events.

This variation suggests that cultural differences in storytelling and rhetorical styles significantly influence gestural communication, pointing to deeper conceptual differences in narrative construction between cultures.

Key Facts:

  1. Cultural Gesture Frequency: Italians use twice as many gestures as Swedes when telling a story, with an average of 22 gestures per 100 words compared to Swedes’ 11.
  2. Gesture Functions Vary by Culture: Italians predominantly use pragmatic gestures in storytelling, while Swedes utilize representational gestures, indicating distinct narrative and rhetorical preferences.
  3. Study Implications: These findings challenge stereotypes and emphasize gestures as an integral part of communication, reflecting varied cultural approaches to storytelling and information sharing.

Source: Frontiers

When we talk, we often use our hands in addition to words. Gesturing is a phenomenon that has been observed across languages and cultures. Some cultures are typically thought to use more gestures than others.

To find out if the deeply rooted stereotype of Italians gesturing more than other cultures is true, researchers in Sweden have examined the differences in gesture rate and function between Italians and Swedes who were telling a story to a friend.

This shows a hand.
As expected, the findings showed that Italian speakers did gesture more frequently overall. Per 100 words, Italians used an average of 22 gestures, whereas Swedes used just 11. Credit: Neuroscience News

“We show that Italians do gesture more than Swedes, which was expected,” said Dr Maria Graziano, the first author of the Frontiers in Communication article and associate professor at Lund University Humanities Lab.

“More interestingly, we demonstrate that people from different cultures use gestures differently, due to varying rhetorical styles and different ways of constructing a story.”

Talking hands

Together with Prof Marianne Gullberg, a psycholinguist at the same lab, Graziano had 12 Italian and 12 Swedish participants retell the story of a 90-second clip from the cartoon ‘Pingu’ to a friend who had not watched the cartoon.

Researchers who study gestures commonly use cartoons because the characters often do not speak, and viewers can retell the story using their own words without input from the source.

As expected, the findings showed that Italian speakers did gesture more frequently overall. Per 100 words, Italians used an average of 22 gestures, whereas Swedes used just 11.

In addition to gesture frequency, the researchers observed who used which gestures to what end.

“When we tell stories we combine several kinds of information: we introduce characters and events, describe actions, and explain why. We check that our listener understands what we’re saying. And if we are telling a story based on cartoon, we refer to the act of watching, too,” Graziano explained.

“When we describe an action, it is more likely that we produce a gesture that represents that action; while if we talk about characters or settings, it is more likely that we make a gesture that ‘offers’ this information to the listener.”

Italians tended to use more pragmatic gestures – those that mainly comment on the story and present new parts of it to the listener. Swedes, instead, tended to use more representational gestures, which mostly represent the events and actions of the story.

“This indicates that Italians and Swedes adopt different rhetorical styles in telling a story and that they conceptualize it in a different way,” Graziano pointed out.

How cultures think about stories

Currently, it is unclear why Swedes and Italians may conceptualize narratives differently. A possible explanation is that some cultures attribute different values to narration than others, which could lead to varying ways of organizing speech content and impact gesturing. This, however, needs to be confirmed by further studies, the researchers pointed out.

Future studies should also include more participants, including participant pairs who do not know each other, as familiarity may impact rhetorical choices made by speakers. Taking an approach that looks closely at both the content of the speech and the function of gestures can also help understand why cultures differ in narrative production, the researchers said.

“I hope that this study helps people consider gestures from a different perspective and go beyond stereotypical and folkloristic views. Gestures are produced in all languages and cultures, and they are not a mere embellishment of speech; they are closely related to what we are saying and how we want to say it,” Graziano concluded.

About this communication and social neuroscience research news

Author: Deborah Pirchner
Source: Frontiers
Contact: Deborah Pirchner – Frontiers
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Providing evidence for a well-worn stereotype: Italians and Swedes do gesture differently” by Maria Graziano et al. Frontiers in Communications


Providing evidence for a well-worn stereotype: Italians and Swedes do gesture differently

Across cultures and languages spontaneous speech is often accompanied by gestures. It is a popular belief that people in Italy gesture more than people in Northern Europe, such as in Sweden. Despite this general assumption few studies empirically investigate cultural differences in gesture frequency and gesture function under similar circumstances.

This study compares the spoken and gestural behaviours of Italian and Swedish speakers, assumed to represent gesture-rich vs. gesture-sparse cultures. We examine the groups’ gestural behaviour for frequency, and in terms of possible differences in rhetorical style probing the distribution of gestural functions (referential vs. pragmatic) across narrative levels (narrative, metanarrative, and paranarrative).

The results show that (1) Italians overall do gesture more than Swedes; (2) Italians produce more pragmatic gestures than Swedes who produce more referential gestures; (3) both groups show sensitivity to narrative level: referential gestures mainly occur with narrative clauses, and pragmatic gestures with meta- and paranarrative clauses. However, the overall group preferences for different functions still lead to different styles.

These findings indicate that the two groups differ in gesture rate and, more interestingly, in rhetorical styles, one focused on events and actions in speech and gesture (Swedish), the other alternating between events in speech and gesture, and the highlighting of the presentation of new pieces of information in gesture only (Italian).

We propose that the findings suggest that the two groups conceptualise narrative production in different ways reflected in two different rhetorical styles revealed by gesture production more than by speech.

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