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March 26, 2015

Cultural connection with Gesturing

Rajnikanth: Tollywood Movie
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In January 2014, I moved from Pune (India) to Chennai (India) with my wife after choosing a new job from a local IT company. It was very first time of coming into direct contact with native south Indian population since I never traveled this part of the country ever before in my life at all.

I was really excited yet I felt a little bit nervous and challenged too because I didn’t know local language i. e. Tamil (classical one and 5th most spoken language in India), etiquette, mannerism and normal (or socially acceptable) nonverbal behavior before moving to Chennai.

Although I've few Tamil friends living in Pune, facing and interacting with same people in their own territory is very different because they tend to behave, act and express very culturally, naturally and comfortably. Also, some people might dominate, cheat and harass the strangers and visitors too.

Knowing the fact that gestures have different meanings and purposes in two different cultures, I started to investigate one particular hand gesture which I found completely different. I never saw people from any other cultures especially people from other parts of India making this gesture, in exactly the same way.

It’s a typical gesture that Tamil men and women make especially during face to face conversations. One of my colleagues turned close friend makes this gesture a lot of time during conversation so I could pick enough details about same from very close distance.

Questioning Gesture
How this gesture is made? One hand is stretched out, held above torso (upper body), thumb is kept jutting outside partially or fully, other fingers are clenched and finally this whole formation is abruptly shaken 2 or 3 times vertically at elbow. Through a stranger’s point of view, it appears as if a person, who makes this gesture, is trying to hold and shake something quickly by one hand.

I didn’t see my Tamil friends living in Pune (India) making this gesture. Has this gesture any strong connection with local population, culture and geography of Tamil Nadu (or South India) only?

I was very intrigued to observe this gesture at very first time because I really didn’t know that exactly why native Tamil people make this gesture. After few instances, I realized that a Tamil person makes this gesture only while asking (seriously) or emphasizing something.

Finally, true nonverbal purpose behind the gesture was disclosed. Even though I no longer find this gesture as an offensive or weird, as people from other cultures might assume it to be, investigating it further became necessary. Why and how this particular gesture might have evolved in the first place?

‘Shikhara’ gesture
To my surprise, I found that Bharatnatyam (भरतनाट्यम or பரதநாட்டியம் - a classical dance form of Tamil Nadu, India) dancers also use this gesture for exactly the same purpose - asking question or demanding answer in a symbolic way. In Bharatnatyam, this gesture is called as ‘Shikhara’ (शिखर/शिखरा or சிகர், Sanskrit word synonymous to ‘Peak (of a mountain)’) and it’s made in a slightly different way.

Unlike common way of gesturing, dancers don’t shake hand at elbow but just hold it stationary and raise their eyebrows significantly. Bharatnatyam might have adapted this gesture from native people’s nonverbal vocabulary and later modified it.

As per my own speculation, this gesture might have evolved out of a very normal yet an effectively threatening practice which ancestors might have developed. Perhaps, they might have become used to ask questions by holding a tool or weapon e. g. chopper, knife or stick to bring seriousness in conversation (Enough is enough! Now come to the point.). My own strong speculation is that it might be tightly related with agricultural/occupational background of Tamil community.

People carrying and using ARUVAL (a handy chopping tool or a large sickle with a long, thick and high carbon steel blade which is curved at its outer end) can be watched to shake their clenched fist over the tool (by jutting out thumb) same way during conversation to emphasize or put stress on something during face to face conversation.

Aruval: a tool and a weapon
Even today, we make many gestures in absence of same or similar kind of objects which our ancestors might have used to hold in or handle by their hands. One very good example is ‘beat you with stick’ gesture which is made by wagging an index finger in front of the person to be warned off.

Also, both thumbs up and thumbs down gestures are used to convey OK (Positive) or Not OK (Negative) respectively but they evolved in such a way that we can’t imagine in today’s context.

In ancient roman Colosseum, spectators used to send signals to winning gladiators for killing (Thumb Down) or letting go (Thumb Up) their loosing opponents. Thumb was representative of a sword so pointing it downward conveyed stabbing and pointing it upward conveyed keeping the weapon into non-harming upright position.

Not only cultural but historical, social, educational and genetic aspects also influence the way certain group of people gesticulates normally and unconsciously (during conversation). There can be many distinctive gestures people from different cultures might be making.

What all we need to do is to pick and analyze them in different contexts than jumping into misinterpretation or misjudging people who make them. So next time you watch any distinctive gesture, please check its cultural, social and geographical background first.

[Special Note: Mr. M. Kalyanaraman (Senior Assistant Editor) from the Chennai office of world's largest English daily Times of India contacted me to write an investigative write-up on the same subject. My article was published in the same on 9th June, 2014. Currently, the article doesn't exists anymore on the newspaper's website but you can find its image below (Click to zoom).]

Related Articles:
1) Words and Gestures are alike 2) Basic Gestures: Best Survival Tools for Travelers 3) Gestures: Are they learned or genetic?


  1. I think this is a very good topic - how different people subconsciously connect/exist to/within their surroundings in different ways, and how these surroundings in turn can act as carriers for our thoughts, intention and emotion. Almost like the surface tension of the water in a small pond, and how it makes ripples when an insect or something else comes crashing into the water.

    It's remarkable how easily we humans establish a 'normal' and make this our platform from which we operate. I wonder if this is somewhat transferable to our concept of good and evil and how we view this? If so, then what we assume to be 'evil deeds' or 'evil intentions' could be what is only the observable result, from any given perspective, as someone's 'normal' violently collides with some other people's fundamentally different 'normal'. If it is transferable to 'good and evil' then it might also be transferable to the 'mentally ill', and in this way help guide someone through the process of 'unlocking' these people and their minds - so that they might perhaps see and feel themselves again?

    Figuring out someone's 'mentally ill normal' as they express it in their non-verbal (but also in the subconscious part of their verbal) communication becomes the key to unlock and change the situation, in other words - but I digress - it's a very thought provoking and interesting subject, and one that I think many inadvertently perhaps overlook somewhat. Thank you for this inspiration. :)

  2. Communication without words is hugely dependent on the context of the individual and the group within which they are communicating. It may well be that the gestures develop as a method if an in-group or out of group membership. THis can vary by age, social group, community and a range of other aspects. This is why a heavy reliance on the ability of gesture to be interpreted can fail if the context isn't considered.


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