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Frequency of hand gestures not linked to specific cultures says U of A study

A study from the University of Alberta found that the amount of hand gesturing when speaking is more connected to what a person is saying rather than their cultural identity.

In a study released on March 25, Elena Nicoladis, a psychology professor at the U of A, had bilingual speakers of French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Hindi watch a Pink Panther cartoon. Participants then had to verbally summarize the story in both English and their native language while the researchers examined how frequently each participant made hand gestures.

Nicoladis decided to pursue this research to explore whether cultural differences are responsible for variations in the amount of gesturing during conversations.  

“We started off with a stereotype that you hear all the time, that Italians gesture a lot, that if you tie an Italian’s hands behind their back they can’t even speak anymore,” Nicoladis said. “The research findings to date haven’t consistently supported the idea that there are cultural differences in how frequently people gesture.”

Nicoladis and her team hypothesized that the frequency of hand gesturing was more related to how people spoke or told a story instead of where they were from.

“So what we were looking for in this study was we were thinking well maybe it’s not so much that culture impacts how frequently people gesture directly,” Nicoladis said. “Maybe culture impacts how they speak, which might then impact how frequently they gesture.”

In both English and participants’ native language, the researchers found that French and Spanish speakers gestured more than Mandarin and Hindi speakers. However, Nicoladis also found that French and Spanish participants summarized the cartoon more chronologically whereas Mandarin and Hindi speakers focused on the lessons learned from the cartoon.

“So, the French and Spanish speakers, they really reported on what they had seen… recounting the whole play by play,” Nicoladis said. “The Hindi and Mandarin speakers were more focused on picking out the events that illustrated why you could learn something from this [cartoon] or how they felt about the events, so they did a lot more evaluation of the story as they were telling it.”

Nicoladis said telling a story in a more chronological and action-focused fashion may get people to play out the events in front of them using hand gestures, which allows them to construct images of what they want to say.

The next step in this line of research, Nicoladis believes, is to examine the origins of cross-cultural differences in the way people recount a story. Nicoladis thinks that socialization processes like schooling and parenting may play a role.

“We’ve had a couple of Mandarin speakers who told us that this is something they learn in school,” Nicoladis said. “We [also] know from other studies that parents in China will speak to their children and really get them to focus on the lessons they learned… So it would be really interesting to figure out what are the factors that contribute to these cross-cultural differences.”

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