A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

Various personal interests and public info, gesture, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Month: September 2006 Page 1 of 3

Clinton Wags His Finger

Gesture in the news today: Bill Clinton, former US president, wags his finger at a journalist who questions him over ‘failing to kill Bin Laden’.

Do you feel Clinton has anything to apologize for? (video)

I am glad I live in a country where failing to kill anyone is not a political risk factor. But on with the gestures: It is not the first time Clinton is in the same position and using the same gestures to an American journalist.

Under the Spell of Tinkerbell

Come and travel with me
Fly with me to Neverland
Peter Pan will come for us

Just think your happy thoughts
Oh and of course a bit of pixie dust
From the one and only

My kids just got the old Disney version of Peter Pan and are loving it. And so do I. What a lovely story about fantasy and growing up. But the tiny Tinkerbell caught my professional eye as well. She is interesting to watch for her gestures and body language. She doesn’t talk, she just tingles and gestures. Check the movie for examples. Still Peter Pan, Captain Hook and the others who believe in fairies understand her.

I started to pay attention to how she gestures and it struck me that she barely mimes, nor does she create language-like gestures. Nearly all of her gesturing is spent on expression of her emotions or attitudes towards Peter and Wendy.

Now I find myself at a crossroads. Behind me is the road I traveled through a land of gestures that were all about form and meaning, about semiotics and perception. I felt the expressive aspect of gesturing to be mostly besides the point. And the point was that practically all gestures signify something. They all carry meaning from maker to taker. And my main interest has been how humans achieve this so effortlessly.

Oh no, not feelings! (source)

I had expression of emotions nicely stacked in a box of (mostly) facial expressions, subtitled ‘unvoluntary universal displays’. One does not so much intend to communicate with them, but onlookers can glean information from them.

But I am afraid it is just not true. Humans (and fairies) use displays of emotion as a way to communicate them to others. We can fully intend to influence others to our advantage this way. An expressive gesture can in fact be a complex social act, even if it has its roots in a simple reflex.

And so my choice is made
I will not grow up
But endulge myself in fantasy
And let my feelings come alive

Let us gesture
Let us fly

University News: PR for ASLR

At my university we have a newspaper called TU Delta. They interviewed my colleagues and me about our Automatic Sign Language Recognition (ASLR) project.

Browsing the Delta archives I saw an interview with Joeri van Zuilen, a Deaf student at the TUD (and native signer). By chance, Joeri was kind enough to participate in my studies regarding the perception of sign language. He is also blogging but not working at NASA (yet).

Integraal is our university’s glossy. They also wrote about us in a piece on enabling technology. We are getting popular, it seems. In their archives I found a big piece on a gesture recognition project by Caroline Hummels, a colleague at my own department. She got her PhD in 2000 with her work on the expressive aspect of gesturing and how this can help designers shape their designs.

Why doI tell you these things here?

Because sometimes, a PhD-student needs to know he is not invisible and not alone… (sniff 😉

The Biggest Misunderstanding About Gestures

Why is it that some, like Judie Haynes from the US, would want to teach the young to watch out how they gesture when they meet people from a different culture? She gives 10 examples that are “perfectly acceptable” in the United States but rude, or obscene, in other cultures. However, her examples are sometimes incorrect, always exaggerate differences, and show no appreciation for Man’s ability to meet strangers and tolerate cultural differences.

A meeting between Americans and scary foreigners? (source)

Is it part of a xenophobic program of fear? Are people really convinced they won’t be able to establish fruitful communications with foreigners? Or do we just like to point out the differences between cultures? For my own piece of mind I will assume this last suggestion is true in most cases.

Do I think that cultural differences are not interesting? No, they can be interesting, but I think there are more interesting things to tell about gestures and culture than just point out different meanings for emblematic gestures. Desmond Morris, in his Gestures, their Origin and Distribution (1979), at least provides great information about the spread of meanings of a gesture throughout Europe and a history. See this example of The Thumb Up. If you want to talk about culture and emblematic gestures, follow his example and do it right.

Some trust in God, and their God alone. Few may trust in humans, but I thank God I am one of those happy few. I believe people are able to handle cultural differences if they are both willing. Gestures will seldom lead to misunderstandings. In fact, I will raise the reward for evidence of a gesture mix-up to 150 euro.

I think gesturing will often help you communicate to strangers, and clarify your intentions. It can form the basis of acquiring an unknown language. I felt confident when I went to Italy and Russia that I could jumpstart communications through gesturing. I quickly picked up a bit of Italian and Russian like that and to top it all off: I learned the meaning of their gestures without any problems.

A meeting between New Zealanders and kids from Yemen (source)

When my kids grow older I hope to teach them not to be afraid to walk up to friendly strangers and talk to them. We are all humans after all. And I will tell them to talk with their hands if words fail. Gestures are not our enemy, they may well be Man’s best friend.

Do your gestures look like they should?

Are both sign language and gestures best defined in terms of what they should look like?

Reading in Crasborn‘s (2001) thesis always gives me plenty to think about. One thing struck me yesterday. The emphasis placed on perception in the modeling of sign language. I read the same before in a review by Sara Fortuna of ‘Ideeen zu Einer Mimik’ and other works of Johann Jakob Engel. Crasborn describes sign language (NGT) and Engel describes gestures mostly in a theatrical context. One is about signers and their conversational partners, the other about actors and their audience. Yet they both state that a gesture (or sign) is defined in terms of what it should look like.

Is a perfect sign in the eye of the beholder? (source Heather Brooks)
What a gesture should look like is the code shared between producer and observer. It is the language, or the semiotic system, employed by them. We articulate a gesture in such a way that it will hopefully carry the right message. We try to produce something that looks like the target. When we do this we take into account both how we think the observer sees it, but we may also reflect on our production ourselves.

Wait a minute. I might be writing trivial stuff here. Is not the same statement about production for perception true for almost anything? Do we all try to be the perfect wife or husband, or do we try to look like it? And when my daughter of 4 is told to clean up, I think she is trying very hard to look busy, while minimizing actual effort.

Do we act to look like we should? (source)

My mentor Ans said we all carry part of the world inside us just as much as we are part of the world. We adjust our behaviour for others. Gestures are no exception. And so, the importance of perception is nothing special for gestures.

In comparison with studies of production it is an empty statement to say perception is more important. True, without an underlying perceptual specification there can be no efficient communication. But we may get to a shared code only after many tried productions. And without production there is nothing to perceive. I may think I know exactly what a tree falling in the woods should sound like, but without an actual tree falling, can there be a debate?

Countries, Cultures and Gestures

The way people gesture is part of the culture of a country. Which is why I present you here a list of decent introductions into the culture of many countries. Be sure to check each second paragraph on ‘Communication Styles’ which includes speech and gestures. You can also learn about displays of emotion, and many other aspects of culture. More external links are given in numbers 2, 3, etc. Any posts on this site are indicated with the little logo.

Bosnia And Herzegovina
Brazil 2 3
Central African Republic
China 2 3 4
Congo, The Democratic Republic Of The
Costa Rica
Cote D’ivoire
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Ethiopia 2
France 2
Hong Kong
Iran, Islamic Republic Of2
Italy 2 3
Japan 2 3 4
Korea, Republic Of 2
Kyrgyz Republic
Lao, People’s Democratic Republic
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Mexico 2
Nepal 2
New Zealand
Philippines 2
Russian Federation
Saudi Arabia
Sierra Leone
South Africa 2
Spain 2
Sri Lanka
Taiwan 2
United Kingdom
United States of America
Uruguay 2

Ps. Many, many thanks to the Canadian Office of Foreign Affairs for putting the info collected by their people online. Should the links break then please let me know. There is a mirror I can point you to.

Chavez Gestures

There was a nice bit of gesturing in the speech by Hugo Chavez at the UN General Assembly.

After recommending Chomsky‘s Hegemony or Survival and calling out Bush as the devil, he invoked heavenly protection. He crossed himself elaborately, including kissing his hands before folding them in a quick prayer to the Lord above. I wonder if all the representatives from all over the world understood the general meaning of these gestures. My guess would be that they did? The laughter and applause seemed to be in response to it, to some extent anyway. Throughout his speech I think he made good and frequent use of co-speech gestures in a relaxed style (which appears common in Venezuela culture).

Plants gesture: You may profit if you boil me

Once more let us dream a while
Once more let us consider plant gestures

I wrote previously about the intentions of moving plants, and about their ability to communicate. Do plants gesture? I remain unconvinced. Sure, they move for various practical reasons but not to communicate.

They do appear to provide information to their environment in response to events through chemical signals. When under attack from a bug, they send up smoke signals calling in allied killer bugs. However, this signaling appears limited to a single message, it is not a semiotic system. There may also be no killer bugs to pick it up. It is also not under cognitive control. Yet I can see how it is useful to call it communication. But not through movement or appearance. And I do not call my own chemical signals from my armpits gesture either. So, no gesture sofar.

A seductive gesture? (News in Science)

But the internet is a jungle rife with diversity, and I stumbled upon another case for your consideration: A review of a book on Bach Flower Remedies. The basic idea concerns the healing power of flowers, or their essences. But they also mention the soul gestures of plants (which need to be studied in relation to their essence qualities).

If I understand correctly: The way the flower grows and lives has its analogy in human development. And so the “beautiful Water Violet, which floats so freely on the surface of our clearest streams, will help you…to stand absolutely alone in the world, gaining the intense joy of complete freedom” (source). One could argue that the Water Violet communicates its specific flower-power through the way it grows and lives. Growing and living can be considered movement. Ergo, the plant gestures.

Why would this Water Violet share its secret and tell us what it will do for us if we boil it into an essence?

However, if we complete the analogy, then what do we communicate with the way we grow as a species? We grow from crying babies in cots to screaming toddlers, unruly kids, troublesome teenagers on to neurotic adults. What would be the quality of our essence? Will our perfume help other organisms, like their essence may help us?

There appears to be a problem with the analogy. All of nature revolves around humans, and not vice versa. If we but listen carefully each plant has its own message for us. We are challenged: “to open our eyes to the wonder of the natural world as a living script, a soul-imbued life that can speak intimately to the human soul”. Any takers?

Dutch Gesture and Sign Language Theses Online

All Dutch theses (proefschriften) are now available online at DAREnet. But they do not seem to go back very far. I found the 2003 thesis of Inge Zwitserlood on Classifying hand configurations in Nederlandse Gebarentaal (NGT, or Sign Language of the Netherlands, SLN). And there is a 2005 thesis of Keiko Yoshioka on Linguistic and gestural introduction and tracking of referents in L1 and L2 discourse.

(Source RuG)

None of the older theses about NGT seem to be available. There are some at the LOT, like the one from Onno Crasborn (2001) and Beppie van de Bogaerde (2000), but these also go back to 1998 only.

Perception of Vulgarity

Dark Damian, blogging at Almost Infamous, wrote a nice piece on a gesture he calls the shocker. He saw it on the television. Thousands of other people did not see it apparently.

Is this man making an obscene gesture? (for the answer check Dark Damian)

To be frank I missed it too. I did not know the gesture. Next time I will be more alert.

I think this sort of ‘vulgarity’ is perceived much the same was as insulting gestures. Some people are sensitive to it while others do not see it. That makes it easy to explain what happened here. Damian knows the gesture and appears to be a focused TV watcher (or at least with certain sporting events). Therefore the gesture that was intended as a shocker reached his eyes but not those of more innocent or less alert couch potatoes.

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