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July 30, 2004

Sleight of Hand -- Interpreting Political Gesturing: Hand Gesture Expert Available at Colgate University

From: AScribe - Jul 30, 2004

HAMILTON, N.Y., July 30 (AScribe Newswire) -- From Saddam Hussein to John Edwards, Colgate University psychology professor Spencer Kelly applies his research on the role of hand gestures in producing language to politicians around the world. From John Kerry's fist-pumping gestures to President Bush's palm movements, Kelly analyzes the possible meanings and posturing behind the gestures we repeatedly see in the media.

"Many of the hand gestures used by politicians lie between two extremes," explains Kelly. "At one end of the spectrum, gestures can be spontaneous, creative and unconscious. Ask someone to explain how to tie his or her shoe, and most people will produce a type of impromptu gesture during their explanation. On the other end of the spectrum, gestures are rehearsed, conventional and deliberate. For example, sign languages used by deaf communities (e.g., ASL) are examples of a codified gesture system."

"Some gestures of politicians are spontaneous, but at the same time, conventional and perhaps even deliberate. For example, John Kerry's fist pumping and running mate Edward's thumbs up signals are cases of a type of gesture that is often consciously used to convey a culturally established meaning."

"In our culture, the thumbs up gesture is used to signify 'everything is all right,' and the fist pumping gesture to convey strength and power. Because the meaning of these gestures is easily understood by all Americans, politicians frequently use these hand signals to consciously convey a clear and universal message to the public."

"Politicians' gestures become more spontaneous and unconscious when they speak about things that are new to them. For example, politicians often produce more spontaneous gestures when they answer unexpected questions from the press."

"In Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 911' President Bush is seen misremembering a saying. The correct version of the saying is: 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.' Bush produces an unrehearsed gesture when he cannot remember the rest of the saying. The president's gesture is an open-handed palm-toward-self gesture that moves from his chest toward the podium. He briefly holds the gesture while attempting to recall the correct words. When he resigns himself to paraphrasing, he abruptly releases the gesture. His hand movements create a metaphoric image of grasping and letting go."

"Some gestures of politicians appear to be unconscious and creative, but are actually deliberate and conventional. For example, one of the signature gestures of former President George H. Bush was a 'two flat-handed, palms-facing-inward' gesture to convey that he was talking about separate groups of things, people, or ideas. This gesture metaphorically places different topics into different physical spaces around the speaker. Although this gesture is often used spontaneously, the former president's frequent and consistent use of it suggests that he may have rehearsed and used it deliberately."

"Saddam Hussein recently produced pointing gestures in court that appeared to move responsibility for his actions away from himself and toward others, most notably, President Bush. It is not clear whether this was a conscious attempt to shift blame or whether Hussein produced these gestures without awareness."

Kelly's work aims to identify a neurological link between words and body language that may one day shed light on how children and adults learn as well as predict learning differences like dyslexia. "Gesture, and other forms of visual communication, are tightly integrated with our understanding of language," Kelly contends. "History indicates that long before humans developed speech, they communicated with gestures."

Spencer Kelly may be reached at 315-228-7350 (office) or 315-824-8206 (home) or

For more information or assistance, contact Vige Barrie, Colgate University Media Relations, 315-725-7597.

© 2004 AScribe Newswire