Sometimes science is what happens while you are making research plans. One of my favorite topics for research plans is what makes a gesture a gesture. I ask myself if gestures are always clearly visible? And if so, is that universally true or culture-specific? What is the influence of context? Which circumstances increase the chance that a movement will be seen as a gesture? What role does the sensitivity of onlookers play in their own perception but also in the production of gesturers? To my surprise my 1 year old nephew Marco, visiting the Dutch family with his Italian mama and Dutch papa, answered my unspoken questions. What did he do? He twisted his finger in his ear during lunch with a big smile. Although you may find his action a bit uncivilized let me rush to his defence. At first I just saw his action, and barely noticed it. I had discarded it as just fidgeting. But then his mother remarked ‘ah, you like it, yes?’. Suddenly it dawned on me. It was a cheek screw! But little Marco did not make it exactly right. He screwed his ear instead of his cheek. His mom told me later this happens often.

The cheek screw meaning 'Good', as portrayed in Desmond Morris: Gestures (1979)
What does this mean for a boy from Palermo? (source Gestures, their origins and distribution. Desmond Morris, 1979)

I was forced to go over my own perception of this event. For me, the cheek screw is a gesture (meaning ‘Good’ or praise) that I only knew from reading. The Dutch do not use it. Perhaps I would have seen it immediately if I was Italian? In all likelyhood, Marco’s cheek screw is part of little rituals of communication with his mom and dad. He is learning, practising and his family is alert and responsive to his behaviour. My own involvement, as an uncle at a distance, is much smaller, though I try to interact with him as much as possible.

Let us return to the questions at the beginning with this case in mind to see the answers it may give. This cheek screw gesture was not clearly visible. It is a culture-specific gesture which may explain partly my inability to see it at first. The context of eating and Marco’s interaction with his mom made me see the gesture for what it was: an reasonably succesful attempt at a cheek screw to indicate he liked the food. The circumstances of his age and stage of development of his communication skills work to increase my sensitivity (I pay more attention) and tolerance (I try to understand what he intends to communicate). That is true for my interaction with my own children as well. Does this mean that seeing a gesture in a movement always requires the right context and the right cultural knowledge? No, it is just one case of a small kid growing up, a cheek screw, a mother and an uncle. Or in other words, for fans of human universals: It may well be that all little kids in all cultures learn to make gestures in ways that are so similar (universal) that when they are a bit older their distant uncles will always see their nephews’ intention to communicate, even if their exact meaning may escape those uncles. At the same time little kids gesturing can rely on several things. They operate within their parents’ culture. Mom and dad pay attention to their communicative attempts and are tolerant about mistakes. Furthermore they usually understand the needs of the situation.

From kids it is a small step to adults. We all may rely on exactly the same things. A gesture for a cultural insider who is paying attention can be made with just a subtle movement. If the context is clear the gesture will be perceived without problems. Conversely, if the context is ambiguous (not a shared understanding), two people from different cultures may well have more difficulties. In a way, strangers should act towards each other as a parent to a child: Use whatever clues you can to understand the needs of the situation, pay attention to communicative attempts and tolerate mistakes. Such goodwill gestures will surely be appreciated.