IDevice Icon Kinesics - aka Body Language

Two figures talking

How we move, which is often referred to as "body language", is called Kinesics by social scientists. As we have indicated earlier, the interpretation of these body movements is subject to change based on culture and gender. Researchers Ekman and Friesen established five basic purposes that these kind of movement serve, Emblems, Illustrators, Affect Displays, Regulators and Adaptors. Let's look briefly at each in turn.


Emblems are nonverbal signals that can generally be translated directly into words. Most people within a culture or group agree on their meaning. A good example is the "A-OK" symbol made with the thumb and forefinger. Because these gestures can be directly translated into words, they are quick to use and unambiguous in their meaning. However, as we noted earlier, culture quickly comes into play when you move outside of your "home" culture. For instance, in many parts of the world this gesture is directly translated as "OK", but in other places it might be translated as "Zero" or "None", and in others it is even understood to represent an obscene gesture representing a body orifice. Quite a different interpretation than being OK!


Illustrators are movements that complement verbal communication by describing or accenting or reinforcing what the speaker is saying. People use illustrators to indicate the size of an object or to draw a picture in the air or to emphasize a key word in what they are saying. These might include pointing to an object in the room or pounding on the table. The frequency of use of illustrators may vary by culture, but they are used widely. Use of illustrators can help indicate interest, efforts to be clear or enthusiasm for the topic being discussed.

Affect Displays

Affect displays are nonverbal displays of the body or face that carry an emotional meaning or display affective states. Our gait (bouncing, suggesting happiness for instance, or slouched and shuffling, suggesting depression), and our facial movements (breaking into a big grin, suggesting pleasure, or frowning suddenly indicating displeasure) send a message about our feelings. Affect displays are often spontaneous and thus they may send signals that we would rather not convey based on social norms or our goals for communication. We will explore facial expressions more in a later section.


Regulators are nonverbal messages that accompany speech to control or regulate what the speaker is saying. These might including the nodding of the head to indicate you are listening or understanding something, for instance, and you are encouraging the speaker to continue. Regulars are often associated with turn-taking in conversation, influencing the flow and pace of discussion. For instance, we might start to move away, signaling that we want communication to stop, or we may raise a finger or lift our head to indicate we want to speak, or perhaps show our palm to indicate we don't want a turn at speaking.


Adaptors are forms of nonverbal communication that often occur at a low level of personal awareness. They can be thought of a behaviors that are done to meet a personal need as one adapts to the specific communication situation. They include behaviors like twisting your hair, tapping your pen, scratching, tugging on your ear, pushing your glasses up your nose, holding yourself, swinging your legs, etc. Given the low level of awareness of these behaviors by the person doing them, the observer is sometimes more aware of the behaviors than the doer of them. Adaptors may thus serve unintentionally as clues to how a person is feeling. Adaptors are not intended for use in communication, but rather may represent behaviors learned early in life that are somehow cued by the current situation and which may be increased when the level of anxiety goes up in the situation.


Adapted from chapter 3 of Conflict Management: A Communication Skills Approach (2nd Ed) by Borisoff and Victor.
Image from UVic's Language Teaching Clipart Library.

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