Leaving a group of friends the other night, I turned to wave. “Text me!” one of them said, waggling her thumbs in the air. I didn’t need the words to understand. Among my friends, this gesture has supplanted the hand-cradle, pinky to mouth and thumb to ear; the imaginary cups to ear and mouth; and the finger twirling the air, as if dialing a rotary phone.
Today, we may be more likely to move our fingers across a tablet than turn the pages of a book; to swipe a card, press a button, or enter numbers onto a keypad than turn a key. We type on keyboards more often than we put pens to paper, and we roll down the windows of our cars by pressing a button instead of cranking a handle. Yet when it comes to gesturing, certain outdated motions endure.
Gestures can generally be sorted into two categories, according to Spencer Kelly, an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University. “Co-speech gestures” are the idiosyncratic, often unconscious ways we move our hands as we talk. Researchers believe these gestures help us think and speak and even learn. “Emblematic gestures” are the culturally codified motions that we use to supplement or substitute speech—the peace sign, the thumbs-up, the raised middle finger. Some of these gestures are symbolic, and some, as in the case of thumb-texting, are imitative.
As with words, we tend to pick up our hand movements from the groups with whom we communicate most frequently—especially our peers. If your friends are thumb-texting at you, you will thumb-text back at them. Soon enough, Kelly says, “the movement of your thumbs can be done without speech, and people know what it is. That’s the definition of an emblem.”
Some emblems are recycled, their meanings changing as cultures evolve. In the bleachers of Roman arenas, the thumbs-up was a sign to kill the gladiator (a thumb pressed on top of a closed fist meant save his life). Anthony Corbeill, a professor of classics at the University of Kansas and the author of Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, suspects that the current American connotation of the gesture developed during the 20th century, when GIs used the thumbs-up to signify that a plane was cleared for takeoff. Other emblems are coined afresh, the result of ubiquitous new technology or the quirks of a public figure. The fist bump, which went viral after Barack and Michelle Obama were photographed in action in 2008, can be traced to the germophobic mid-20th-century baseball player Stan Musial, who is said to have preferred it to the high five.
There’s also the mind-blowing twist that the more advanced our technology becomes, the less we have to move at all—a futuristic reality, signs of which we’re beginning to see with the rise of voice-recognition software. Does this mean that gestures might one day become obsolete? “If the computer can track your eye gaze and know what you’re looking at, you don’t need to make a gesture,” says Jason Riggle, an assistant linguistics professor at the University of Chicago.
Of course, if the primary purpose of gesturing is to help us think, we’ll continue to wave our hands even as we talk to Siri. And as long as the meaning of an emblematic gesture is relevant, the physical antecedent of that gesture may be less so.
“I have a 7- and a 5-year-old, and I’ve seen them use the phone gesture, sticking out the thumb and the pinky,” Riggle says. “Maybe they’ve seen it on old cartoons, but they’ve never been in contact with a phone that’s shaped like that.”