Actions speak louder than words. That’s why gestures are powerful tools for conveying information and understanding the people around you.
Nonverbal communication happens in every interaction, but it’s not always easy to interpret. There are countless cues to watch out for: tone of voice, facial expressions, and physical touch. And that’s before you even consider subtle body language, such as physical proximity and eye movement.
You could spend months learning about types of nonverbal communication, so first focus on the basics: types of gestures. Gestures are body movements that parallel verbal communication to convey meaning, and they’re fundamental to how humans transmit ideas. In fact, the brain processes gestures in the same area as speech.
Gestures may seem like an intuitive nonverbal behavior, but understanding the categories and their applications can improve your communication skills — just like expanding your vocabulary does. Whether you’re trying to improve your conflict resolution skills or enhance your nonverbal communication in the workplace, this guide will help.
6 types of gestures and their meanings
Gestures are hard to categorize because they’re often culture-specific and ever-changing. The previous “call me” gesture, holding a pinkie and thumb to your ear and mouth like a handheld phone, has been replaced with a flat palm to indicate a smartphone.
But familiarizing yourself with a few common gesture types, and how to interpret what each means in practice, will make you a better communicator. These are some of the most common types of gestures:
1. Iconic gestures
Also known as illustrator gestures, these hand gestures represent the physical attributes, or icons, of what you’re talking about. As you verbally describe an object, you might pinch your fingers close together to signify that it’s small or flatten your hand to indicate that its surface is smooth.
Beyond communicating ideas, iconic gestures also help you think. Research from the University of Birmingham in England found that encouraging students to talk with their hands improved their spatial visualization and problem-solving abilities. If you’re giving a presentation or brainstorming an idea, describing that idea with your hands can help your brain track what you’re doing.
2. Metaphoric gestures
Metaphoric gestures are similar to iconic gestures, but you instead use them to represent an abstract concept. You may balance your hands like a scale to indicate you’re weighing two options or stack your hands on top of one another to describe overlapping ideas. These are less literal, and they’re often open to interpretation.
3. Manipulator gestures
These gestures use one body part, typically the hand, to manipulate another body part or an object. They may not directly correlate with speech and are often unconscious. Examples include stroking your chin while thinking, covering your mouth when you’re shocked, or tapping your foot when you’re feeling impatient.
Without the proper context, it’s hard to assign specific meaning to a manipulator gesture. Some research shows that when someone fidgets more, they’re more likely to be lying. But people express their feelings through body language in varying ways, so this isn’t reliable. Just because someone plays with their hair doesn’t mean they aren’t honest. They might just want to fidget.
Repetitive body movements, like using fidget toys, also improve focus. In fact, people with ADHD show a positive correlation between excessive movement and cognitive control. So if it helps you focus better, embrace your manipulator gestures, as long as they don’t distract you from the task at hand.
4. Emblem gestures
Emblems are the most explicit use of gestures. These movements express a precise meaning without the need for speech. Emblems — within their respective cultural and linguistic contexts — are as clear and deliberate as any spoken word.
You use emblems every day. Waving your hand indicates “hello” or “goodbye.” A head nod means “yes,” whereas shaking your head side-to-side means “no.” Putting a raised finger to your lips tells others to “be quiet.” But all of these emblem gestures are specific to the US, and they might differ from location to location.
In Bulgaria, nodding the head downward and to the side indicates “yes,” and nodding the head upward indicates “no” — nearly the exact opposite of their American understanding. And in Greece, holding your palm out as if to say “stop” is equivalent to the American middle finger.
If you’re traveling or interacting with people from a different culture, try researching their emblems first to avoid insulting someone unintentionally.
5. Deictic gestures
Deictic gestures are the easiest to understand. You probably know them as “pointing.” People use deictic gestures to indicate which object, person, or direction they’re referring to. They’re so vital to communication that scientists use deictic gestures to track disorders like autism in young children.
6. Beat gestures
Unlike other gestures, beat gestures hold no semantic or abstract meaning. They exist solely to emphasize a word or support the rhythm of your speech. Often, beat gestures present as a baton-like swing of your finger or hand.
You most often use beat gestures while delivering a speech, presentation, or argument. Harnessing these gestures and using them intentionally can help you improve your public speaking skills, as long as you don’t use them so much that they distract your audience.
Interpreting common gestures
Alongside maintaining eye contact and regulating your tone of voice, careful use of gestures can improve your communication skills. And your hand gestures say a lot about your communication style. Aggressive communicators might use beat gestures to dominate the conversation, and assertive communicators might use emblem gestures to let you know they’re listening actively.
This list of common gestures can help you spot gestures in your own life and learn how to use them to communicate and connect with others. Just don’t forget that their meanings may vary outside the US.
An open palm moving side to side is an emblematic gesture that says “hello” or “goodbye.” It’s also a great form of nonverbal communication to get someone’s attention when they can’t hear you. And if you’re physically far away from someone, you could wave towards or away from yourself to indicate “come here” or “stay there.”
Sticking out your index finger indicates the subject of your conversation: “This is an important point in the presentation” or “Here’s a typo in your report.” Just be careful where you aim it because pointing at people can be impolite. If someone doesn’t understand the context of your pointing, they may think you’re spreading gossip, and you don’t want to seem like a rude person.
Moving your head up and down shows approval. This nonverbal signal can replace a spoken “yes” when someone asks you a question or if you want to show them you’re listening. Telling others that you hear them demonstrates that you care and helps you learn.
Like a nod, a thumbs-up indicates a positive response. If you want to express extra approval or enthusiasm, give a thumbs-up with each of your hands at the same time. And alternatively, if you want to show disapproval, a thumbs-down does the trick.
There are a couple of other uses for this hand gesture. Jerking your hand upward while giving a thumbs-up tells others you want more of something or that they should lift it higher (literally or metaphorically). This is an excellent way to communicate expectations in a noisy environment.
5. V sign
Form this gesture by raising your first and second fingers and spreading them apart with the palm facing forward. In addition to indicating the number two, it conveys a desire for peace, dating back to its use during World War II as a symbol of “V for Victory.”
6. Shaka sign
This gesture — extending only the pinky and thumb — has various meanings, depending on context. Generally, it is a friendly hand movement originating in Hawaii that says “right on” or “hang loose,” often accompanied by a wrist shake for emphasis. It’s since become popular with surfers.
This sign has some other common uses. Hold the thumb up to your ear and position the pinky near your lips to pantomime talking on the phone, indicating that the recipient should call you. This is a great example of an iconic gesture.
Raise your flattened right hand to your brow to show acknowledgment and respect. Although it’s now intentional and symbolic, the salute originated in military culture as a way to show that the person making the gesture wasn’t holding a weapon.
8. ILY sign
Extending your pinky, index finger, and thumb creates the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “I love you.” This combines the ASL signs for the letters I, L, and Y. Use it to spread love without saying a word.
You might also find a variation of the ILY sign at rock concerts and in other corners of pop culture. Gene Simmons of Kiss often used it to communicate with loud crowds, and in the Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange uses a similar gesture to cast spells.
Master nonverbal communication to get ahead
Using and interpreting different types of gestures is a great way to communicate efficiently, build trust, and increase empathy with others — all invaluable skills in the workplace.
Picking up on nonverbal cues is essential to developing the emotional intelligence you need to tell others how you’re thinking and feeling, which will make you a stronger leader and help you resolve team conflict.