Communication between two or more people can be verbal (use of linguistic signs in the message) and non-verbal. The latter, non-verbal communication, is the process in which there is a sending and receiving of messages without words , that is, through 3 elements: signs, gestures and signals.

In this article we will talk about the types of gestures we use when communicating . These gestures may or may not accompany our verbal message, and will enrich, adapt or modulate what we want to convey.

Gestures in non-verbal communication

When relating to people, we use both verbal and non-verbal communication, and we use a large number of gestures to add value to what we are saying orally. We also use gestures to modulate interactions, regulating our participation and that of other interlocutors. The different types of gestures will have one function or another, as we will see later on.

A gesture is a body movement proper to the joints . There are different types of gestures, although they are mainly performed with the hands, arms and head.

A gesture is not the same as a gesticulation ; gesticulation implies an anarchic, artificial and inexpressive movement, whereas the gesture is usually expressive, and will want to contribute something to the verbal message (or modulate it).

Gestures are included within motor expressions, and these in turn are part of a person’s non-verbal behavior.

In addition to gestures, motor expressions are formed by facial expressions and postural behaviors .

Types of gestures

We can talk about the types of gestures we will see next.

1. Emblematic gestures or emblems

The emblems are intentionally emitted signals with a specific and very clear meaning . In this case the gesture represents a word or set of words that are well known.

These are gestures that can be directly translated into words, for example, waving goodbye or saying “no” with your head.

2. Illustrative Gestures or Illustrators

They are produced during verbal communication, and serve to illustrate what is being said orally. They are conscious gestures, which vary greatly from culture to culture. They are linked to language, but differ from emblems in that they do not have a directly translatable meaning , since the word to which they are linked does not give them their meaning.

I mean, the gesture “serves” the word, it doesn’t mean it. How does it serve it? By stressing it, emphasizing it or imposing a rhythm on it that by itself the word would not have.

An example of an illustrative gesture is any movement of the body that plays an auxiliary role in non-verbal communication, for example, moving the hands up and down like “flapping”, to indicate “very much” or “very far”.

3. Gestures that express emotional or pathographic states

Continuing with the types of gestures, pathographs are gestures that express emotional states , and play a similar role to illustrative gestures, but we should not confuse them. In this case, they are similar in that, like them, they also accompany the word, and give it greater dynamism. However, they differ in that the pathographs, as we have seen, reflect the emotional state of the sender, while the illustrator is emotionally neutral.

Thus, the illustrative gesture consists of a more cultural form of expression, while the pathograph emerges from the emotional state of the moment.

Through the pathographs one can express the anxiety or tension of the moment, triumph and joy, discomfort, happiness, pain, etc.

4. Gestures to regulate interaction

These are movements that both the sender and the receiver produce in a communicative interaction , and that have the aim of regulating the interventions in the interaction. These are signs to take over the conversation. They also have an essential role during the beginning or end of the conversation (for example, shaking hands during the greeting or goodbye).

They can be used to accelerate or brake the partner (for example by making circles with the index finger and wrist to accelerate him/her, or with the open palm of the hand tapping in the air to slow him/her down). You can also indicate to the interlocutor that he or she can continue talking, or give him or her the impression that you are giving your turn to speak.

In psychotherapy, the regulatory gestures fulfil an essential function in relation to the active listening of the patient. Such listening involves the ability to hear not only what the person is expressing directly, but also the feelings, ideas or thoughts that underlie what is being said.

The most frequent regulating gestures are head nods (such as nodding) and staring. Fast nods imply the message to hurry up and finish speaking, while slow nods ask the speaker to continue and indicate to the listener that they find it interesting and like what is being said.

5. Adaptive gestures or adapters

Finally, the last types of gestures that we will define are adapters, gestures that are used to manage or handle emotions that we don’t want to express .

Adapters are used when our mood is incompatible with the particular interaction situation that is taking place, so that we do not want to express our emotions directly, nor with the intensity that we really feel.

These situations can produce discomfort in the interaction and/or in the sender himself, so the sender tries to control this discomfort , and does so by using the gesture as a way of adapting to the situation.

For example, an adaptor would be running your fingers down your shirt collar when you feel drowned by the stress of the situation, or touching your hair when you are nervous.

It is therefore a question of gestures used as an “escape route” from what is being said or produced in the interaction and/or in our emotional state.

Bibliographic references:

  • Fernández-Ballesteros, R. (2005). Introduction to Psychological Evaluation I and II. Pirámide Publishing House. Madrid.
  • Baron, T. (2012). The great guide of non-verbal language How to apply it in our relationships to achieve success and happiness. Barcelona: Paidós.
  • Gutierrez, F.R. (2014). Types of gestures. Non-verbal communication.