Recently(ish), I was playing Catch Phrase with some friends during our annual lake cabin trip, when they accused me of cheating. Instead of just using words to try to get my teammates to guess the correct answer, I was gesturing wildly in the air, which, they argued, gave my team some unfair clues that helped them guess the answers more quickly. For the rest of the game, they actually made me sit on my hands when it was my turn.
I was annoyed at the time, but you know what? They were right. New research shows that the way a speaker gestures about a word can change the listener’s understanding, regardless of context.
The research was done in Italy, which seems appropriate, as this is a culture known for excessive gesticulations. Researchers designed their experiment around one sentence and the way people interpreted its use of an Italian homophone: the word sbarra, which, depending on context, can be a verb meaning to block or a noun meaning bar. Study participants either listened to an audio-only version of the sentence, or watched a video — but some of the participants saw a video in which the speaker used hand gestures that didn’t match the correct meaning of word vecchia in the given context. When people saw the mismatched gestures, they were more likely to interpret the word incorrectly; they’d choose the meaning indicated in the hand movements rather than judging the word by its context.
So this research suggests that gestures and perceived meaning are very closely linked, which helps explain why it’s sometimes hard to get your point across clearly over the phone. We make ourselves understood not just through our voices, but through our gestures, too. And that’s one more reason why it’s sometimes impossible to make yourself understood in email or IM or text messages; without your voice or your hands, clear communication is already a losing battle. Clearly, there are some things emoji just can’t express, and until that changes, I’ll be over here, waving my hands around in a (science-backed!) attempt to be understood.