Kinesics: What Are You Really Saying?

by Priya Amin

What do shoulder shrugs or crossed arms really communicate? Kinesics, or the systemic study of body behavioral communication,1 is a relatively new subsection in the study of language. More specifically, kinesics describes the importance of body motion behavior in social communication—it is the study of communication through “silent” language. Facial expressions, posture, hand motions, and gestures are some examples of body behavior mannerisms that are included in kinesics. In this field of study, the body is viewed as an instrument of adaptive behavior. Adaptive behavior is the collection of conceptual, social, and practical skills that all people learn in order to function in their daily lives.2 The collective analysis of these adaptations creates a social personality, which is a tempero-spacial system because it is dependent on both time and space. All behaviors evinced by any such system are components of the system, and they act both dependently and independently of each other.3 Often, the social personality communicates vital information that is not verbally acknowledged; in effect, body behavior can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. For example, crossed arms relate a tone of defense, and varying degrees of eyebrow lifts can communicate incredulity.

Charles Darwin is often accredited as the father of modern communicative studies of body motion from his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).1 In his early yet comprehensive study of facial expressions and the effects of emotion on body language, he recorded some of the first written research on kinesics. Since then, the field of kinesics has considerably developed with new assertions and research findings. For example, in 1921, researcher Wilhem Wundt conceived a universal language of gestural communication, and in 1947, anthropologist Ray L. Birdwhistell published his first work, Introduction to Kinesics. As a result, terminology such as kine, the smallest identifiable unit of a stream of body units, a type of body behavior measurement, and kineme, a group of movements that may be used interchangeably without affecting social meaning,4 is used to formalize research findings.

Most recently, research is being directed towards studying the similarities and differences in the body language of dance across several cultures. The direction of the eyes, eyelids, hand positioning, foot positioning, eyebrows, waist, and lips across a set rhythm is often used to convey a feeling or a message. Since subconscious movements in the tension of the skin contribute to body behavior as well, more specific research will soon be conducted on matters such as the oiliness, wetness, and dryness of the skin, tension and laxity of the skin and musculature, variable and shifting vascularity in the skin’s surface, and shifts in the underlying fatty tissue. Although much remains undiscovered, researchers are working towards revealing the secrets of body language.

So, what do you think you’re really saying?

Priya Amin ‘19 is a freshman in Wigglesworth Hall.

Works Cited

  1. “Kinesics.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. Encyclopedia. com. (accessed Oct. 6, 2015).
  2. Birdwhistell, R. (1952). Introduction to Kinesics: An Annotation System for Analysis of Body Motion and Gesture. Louisville, KY: University of Louisville – (1970). Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication. Philadelphia, PA: Penn Press.
  3. Padula, A. “Kinesics.” Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2009. 582-84. SAGE Reference Online. Web. (accessed Jun. 29, 2012). [4] “Diagnostic Adaptive Behavior Scale.” American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. AAIDD, n.d. Web. (accessed Oct. 17, 2015).



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