Talking with our hands helps us to get our meaning across to others. When we speak, we conduct our conversation as we would conduct an orchestra, directing the listener’s attention to meaning, emphasising important points and steering the conversation from one theme to another.
When we talk, ideas flow at speed and people must be able to understand, process and coordinate their own contribution to the conversation.
The transition between taking turns to speak during a conversation is very fast – a mere 200 milliseconds elapse between the contribution of one speaker and the next. By closely observing speech, scientists have found that gestures that end before a sentence is finished give visual cues that the speaker is about to end. This helps us formulate our response more quickly.
It has long been understood that speech is less than half of communication – facial expression and body language also make a vital contribution.
Now, research at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands found that gestures are hugely important in conversation. They also found that people answer questions more quickly when you move your hands or head as you talk.
Scientists analysed the interaction of seven groups of three participants. The groups were left alone in a recording suite for twenty minutes, during which their interaction was filmed with three high-definition cameras.
The researchers focused on analysing question/response sequences because they are prevalent in normal conversation. They found that there were strong visual components to most questions asked and answered. These took the form of body signals such as communicative head or hand movements and appeared to profoundly influence language processing.
So, questions accompanied by gestures get quicker responses than questions without gestures. Responses come even earlier when gestures end before (rather than after) the question has finished being asked. Where gestures did not end early, additional information conveyed by head and hand gestures may help us better understand, process or predict what is being said in conversation.