Language mutates. As society changes, neologisms sprout, new words become codified – app, selfie, meme, troll – and old ones die out. And the rise of new technologies also impacts our non-verbal communication.
Linguistics professor Vyv Evans has suggested that some of our basic hand gestures, or “emblems”, will soon die out due to younger generations not understanding them: things like scribbling on your hand in a restaurant to signal for the bill, or making a winding motion to ask someone to put their car window down.
In July 2020, TikTok user Daniel Alvarado documented how his kids put their hands flat against their face to denote a phone call, instead of the traditional closed fist with outstretched thumb and pinky. Cue 2.6m views and an internet meltdown.
The “call me” gesture has actually been through several iterations as technology has changed – body language expert Patti Wood describes, “people over 60 typically do a soft fist gripping gesture as they first used old dial telephones with the handle like ear and mouthpiece. And some people do the flip phone gesture with palm up and thumb curled.”
Here, Patti Wood explores how the twin forces of technology and the pandemic are changing our hand gestures, and the new emblems that are arising as a result. Harvey James
“Listen to me”
People treat AirPods as if they are a piece of jewellery and forget they have them on, says Wood, meaning it can be difficult to tell if someone is listening to something or not. This gesture (pictured, above) clarifies the beginning of a social interaction or conversation and was used in lockdown by teachers on Zoom. “You even see it in simple customer service interactions,” says Wood, “where people wearing them and partially check out go to order coffee and the barista does the signal to the customer to say symbolically, ‘Hey treat me like a human being and talk to me don’t treat me like a machine.’”
Alvarado’s viral TikTok video highlights how the young generation simply puts a palm to their ear to indicate phoning someone, rather than the classic thumb and pinkie to ear and mouth.
“Let’s take a closer look”
In virtual reality games, people wearing a VR glove inspect items with a twisting motion, like picking an apple. “This gesture is very much a part of a small inner circle of game players now,” says Wood, “but I predict it will cross over into the mainstream, as it works perfectly in the Zoom world where we need more gestures to communicate our thoughts and ideas to the group as in so many meetings the group stays on mute.”
This can be in the air, or over a flat palm, often with a facial expression of disgust, or disapproval or a shake of the head. It is originally from dating apps, where swiping left is a rejection and a way to move on to the next profile. “It indicates you have a little sass or attitude, so it shows a personality or status when you use it” says Wood. “And people who have never used it may think it is rude, while those familiar with it think it’s fun and playful.”
“It can indicate an interest in pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship” says Wood, “as well as a way of saying goodbye when a conversation is ending or you are too busy with someone else to give your full attention such as when you’re out with family, you see a friend and would love to catch up.”
“It’s in the cloud”
This reference has moved into the real world, and refers to information stored in the cloud. “For example,” says Wood, “you are in a meeting and someone asks you to send them the report you are giving and you can point to the cloud to say they can access it.” Or, it could be a tongue-in-cheek reference to something you can’t remember but really should, so pointing to the cloud gets you out of trouble.
“Hello” or “goodbye”
This coronavirus-friendly gesture has, according to Wood, made its way into emails and text messages as a polite sign off, which suggests an awareness and empathy to how the pandemic might have affected everyone differently. This is an example of a gesture being converted to script via technology.
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