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September 19, 2012

Gestures: Are they learned or genetic?

Along with Prof. Dr. Paul Ekman's bench-marking work that proved the universality of facial expressions of basic emotions, prevailing behavioral researches in world of psychology are attributed to human nonverbal communication.

The strength of the contributions made by of Dr. Ekman has left no room for any doubts and today no one questions that basic emotions have a universal facial expression pattern that is contained in our genetic makeup.

However, what about the gestures we make by hands or head? Are they learned or genetically inherited? Let's find out what a research says.

My approach in this article is taking you attention to a research conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany) that has recently been published by BBC Science.

Group of wild bonobos: Closest primate cousins to humans

According to scientists and as they managed to film on many occasions, several members of primate species called as Bonbons shook their heads from side to side to prevent others to do something they didn’t want. In one of the recordings, a mother shook her head to stop her baby playing with food.

Researchers say that this could be a precursor to the behavior of shaking head used by humans observed in one of our closest primate relatives. Chimpanzees seem to shake their heads to avoid behaviors that do not satisfy.

"Our observations are the first to report the use of negative movement of head in bonobos," says Christel Schneider, who led the study. According to his research, the recorded videos in Leipzig Zoo, a chimp mother shook her head in disapproval of playing with food by her baby.

"Ulindi is trying to prevent her daughter, Luiza, keep playing with a piece of leek", explains the researcher. "As Luiza ignored, despite repeated attempts to stop her, Ulindi finally shook his head at the young," he adds.

"No" from Bonbons

It is known that African great apes such as Bonobos (Pan paniscus) and Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), nodding used as negative (tilt or shake) to communicate with other members.

It was already known that bonobos use head shaking to initiate interactions with other members of their group and start playing. However, this is the first study that shows in films that an ape shaking his head in a negative context, to avoid or prevent other bonobo’s behavior.

Scientists based in Germany observed this behavior when the animals were being analyzed as part of a larger study about communication of offspring of the great apes.

With video cameras recorded the gestures and behavior of bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans in six European zoos. During the investigation, they found four bonobos shaking their heads in this way on 13 different occasions. Previously there were only anecdotal reports of chimpanzees shaking his head to indicate "no."

Socially Sophisticated

Scientists believe that the negative head movement is a precursor of the same behavior in humans. Scientists explain that bonobos use a wider range of head gestures than chimpanzees and are considered to be more sophisticated to use their head to indicate any meaning.

The authors say that these sophisticated systems of communication might have arisen because of apparently sophisticated society, tolerant, cooperative and democratic living in these animals where complex social structures and hierarchies diffuse. So perhaps bonbons developed the head nod to say "no" and negotiate conflict situations.

However, researchers are cautious and say they cannot be sure that the animals really want to deny when they shake their heads in this way. But so far this is still the best explanation, they say.

Also, as Schneider told to BBC, we must clarify that the head movement is not always associated with something negative. In many countries, moving head side to side is symbol of approval too.

[This article is translation of the original article "Gestos, ¿aprendidos o genéticos?" written in Spanish (Español) by my friend and nonverbal communication researcher Prof. Dr. Rafael López Pérez from Universidad Camilo José Cela, Madrid (Spain).

Just like facial expressions and facial micro-expressions in body language, hand gestures have been a great subject of research, especially through technological development perspective.]

Related Articles:
1) Basic Emotional Expressions 2) "The expression of emotions in man and animals" 3) Body Language Brain 4) Why we clench fist after victory? 5) Self-communication by gesturing 6) Basic Gestures: Best Survival Tools for Travelers 7) Cultural connection behind gesturing

September 09, 2012

What is Nonverbal Communication?

Most of us confuse term 'Body Language' (BL) with 'Nonverbal Communication' (NVC). In fact, 'Body Language' and 'Nonverbal Communication' are two different scientific domains or areas but they are also very closely related with each other. Actually, majority of our responses, reactions, expressions, reciprocation and feedback during (face-to-face) interpersonal interactions, encounters and exchanges are corporeal or physical i. e. through body and its different parts. That's the reason why both terms or phrases are confused with each other by many. Hence if you're one of them then you should read this article till the end to know the truth and facts.

Body Language is exactly what body transmits, exudes, expresses, exhibits, conveys, displays, radiates, orchestrates, shows off, reacts and responds to without the help and/or in absence (spoken) words. Whatever an (living) individual is inherently and intrinsically capable of communicating with outer world, entities and people through body movements, body positioning, body orientations, body postures, hand gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice, touching, fidgeting, pacifying, adapting, soothing, reflexes, sympathetic reactions and para-sympathetic reactions is considered as Body Language.

Term 'Nonverbal' simply means “without, not involving, not using or in absence of words”. Therefore, Nonverbal Communication is what one communicates nonverbally. According to me, it is an unimaginably vast and enormously diversified area of studying, observing, tracking, analyzing, understanding and decoding behavior, actions, reactions, interactions, responses, expressions, exchanges, movements, gestures, conditions, states, iterations and patterns of both natural/biological and artificial entities, including human beings and all other creatures, through different contexts.


Universe, cosmos, nature and whole biological world are fundamentally, originally, explicitly and absolutely nonverbal. Everything that we (or any living being) sense, feel, observe, experience, see, smell, taste, consume, touch, hear (except words), measure, judge, grasp through and/or using different sensory organs and ultimately perceive, interpret and/or process inside our brains exists without, is totally free from and functions entirely independent of human words. Moreover, different entities continuously communicate or interact with, respond to and reciprocate each other without words. Languages we humans use were invented quite recently, in our long evolutionary history.

Matter of fact is the words from any human language fall short or completely fail to describe, explain and illustrate most of the cosmos, universe, (nature of) reality, biological world, overall complexity and different entities along with their interconnections, interdependence and interactions and exchanges among them. Spoken/verbal and written languages are our own invented tools and thus they are relative, imperfect, evolving and also perishable. Nevertheless, the words we choose and the way we pronounce them do convey physical conditions, underlying emotions, sentiments, feelings, moods and attitudes.

Scientifically, Body Language is a field related with social cognition, affective neuroscience, evolutionary biology, social science, sociology and ethology. Kinesics is a field related with interpretation of different elements of body language in different situations. Synergology is a form of communication which is based on the nonverbal aspects. It is a method of specialized interpretation and analyzing unconscious bodily movements. Sign-Languages are also considered as nonverbal languages.

Perhaps, most of us might have skill or ability to pick body language clues but may not be able to analyze, interpret or decode them precisely, correctly or accurately without knowing the key components of Nonverbal Communication.

Nonverbal Communication broadly has the following distinct components (four classical and two modern) and their corresponding contents:

A) Body Lingual: Postures, Body Movements, Body Orientations, Hand Gestures (Emblems, Illustrators and Regulators), Facial expressions (Macro, Micro and Subtle), Oculesics (Eye contact, gaze and glance), Pupillometry (Interpretation of Psychological state by measuring pupil size), Haptics (Touch), Proxemics (Interpersonal/Social Distance), Reflexive Movements, Pulmonary Ventilation (Respiration) and Sympathetic-Parasympathetic Reactions

B) Contextual: Physical Environments, Social Situations, Geographical Locations, Geographical Terrains, Climatic Conditions, Cultural Norms, Genetic Inheritance and Chronemics (Time)

C) Peripheral: Objects, Attires, Chromatics (Color), Olfactics (Smell), Thermal Signals and Chemical Signals

D) Vocal (Para Lingual): Clarity, Tone, Volume, Tempo, Pitch, Pause, Rhythm, Annotation and also Silence

E) *Informational: Drawings, Photographs, Graphs, Charts, Animations, Images, 2D Models, 3D Models, Signs, Symbols, Icons, Insignia, Flags

F) *Textual: Positions, Decorations, Highlighting, Fonts, Font sizes, Colors, Emoticons, Text Faces and Emojis

Without considering, taking into account or emphasizing context, clustering and congruence (the referential and authenticating integrity among different nonverbal clues); both trying to understand, analyze and decode an ordinary or trivial message can lead us to nowhere, let alone conveying one much effectively.

Also, the broader or umbrella scientific term or phrase 'Nonverbal Communication' (NVC) can't at all be limited to humans being only. Hence, Nonverbal Communication limited and/or specific to human beings should be called, termed or mentioned as 'Human Nonverbal Communication' (HNVC).

I sincerely wish and I'm also greatly hopeful about that next time anybody confuses body language with nonverbal communication and vice a versa, you would definitely be able to explain the difference and relation between the both terms with great confidence, comfort and fluency.

By now, you might have clearly understood both terms, difference between them and their corelation too. You posses enough introductory knowledge to study, explore, decode, analyze, decipher and demystify the unimaginably vast “Nonverbal World” around yourself.

By the way, Nonverbal Communication isn't just universal but also fundamental, even at the micro level. Two atoms or sub-atomic particles communicate or interact among themselves without using a single word from any human or non-human language.

[Special Note: I kindly suggest that the term 'Human Nonverbal Communication' (HNVC) should be widely put in use at all levels and all areas, starting right from the educational institutions to body language and nonverbal communication books and articles.

As data, facts and information is represented, converted/compressed into and/or explained visually, I've added *Informational component to the list, on 31st December, 2021. Also, *Textual component was added on 1st January, 2022.]

Related Articles:
1) Body Language Brain 2) Unlimited potentials of nonverbal knowledge 3) Evolution of Nonverbal communication 4) "The expression of emotions in man and animals" 5) "Nonverbal" is alien way of communication? 6) Shivaji Maharaj: Superior in Nonverbal Communication 7) Chameleon Fabrics for Social Clues 8) Is Human Communication 93% Nonverbal?