Gesture in Risk Matters


imageA gesture is an embodied communication that signals a bodily sign with or without language. When we wave goodbye or shake hands on ‘hello’ we communicate symbolically which is the power of embodied communication. Whether the ‘pat on the back’ is a metaphor or a physical gesture, it conveys more than descriptive (phatic) language. The pictures we paint in language and picture-as-a-gesture is far more powerful emotionally than any other form of communication.

I have previously discussed the iconography of the safety industry (  ) and its fixation with objects. These objects such as cones, glasses, gloves, curves, bow-ties, boots, triangles, hi-vis and matrices don’t offer a human connection in what they say. Indeed, they take the emphasis away from being human to the objects humans wear. As icons they gesture nothing. What a wasted opportunity to connect and engage with people in helping them tackle risk.

Use of gestures, symbols and graphics is known as ‘synchronous communication’. Synchronous communication connects with the human conscious and unconscious in engagement. Synchronous communication is not ‘phatic’ that is, it wants to say more than just giving information. Many of our gestures are a critical part of human ritual eg. hugs, kisses, holding hands, pointing, washing, thumbs up etc. When Pilate washed his hands before the crowd (Matthew 27:24) he wanted the crowd to think there was no blood on his hands. When Jesus washed the disciples feet, they knew what humility meant.

One of the most powerful forms of gesture today is the emoji. The emoji has become the tour de force for online communication. Although there 2823 emojis (just like there were thousands of hieroglyphics), the top 10 emojis convey human emotion (; ). Nine of the top 10 emojis convey positive human emotions with number 10 being a pile of poo, to express disappointment or trouble. An emoji is an icon, sign, gesture and symbol that communicates more than itself (

We now know that emojis are online gestures (The Conversation: Emoji aren’t ruining language: they’re a natural substitute for gesture) that add power to language and connecting emotionally with others. When others see the emoji it triggers mirror neurons in their body and creates a feeling of connection. This is what gesture does. Emodied communication is much more powerful than phatic messaging.

Emoji research (Danesi, M., 2017., The Semiotics of the Emoji, The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet. Bloomsbury, London) shows that visual gesture (in physical reality or graphically) adds to the power of communication, often extracting or connecting emotionally with the other. Communication that connects emotionally is much more effective than just giving information.

Research(  ) shows that people with higher social and emotional intelligence use gestures better than others, and with use of the emoji. This is what is known as ‘emoji competence’.

Worker woman making stop sign over white backgroundSafety devalues the power of iconic, semiotic and gesture communication at its own peril. Indeed, Safety’s fixation on objects is one of the reasons why people don’t connect with it emotionally, no one is attracted to objects that have no emotional connection to living. Here we are, we say we are different, new, unique, visionary, not masculine, not authoritarian, not policing and our icon is a cone! A triangle! And engineering piece! Wow! Safety doesn’t even know how much it disconnects with others.

There is still nothing of any substance in any safety qualification on communication effectiveness. The Safety BoK has nothing in it on any of this stuff. Indeed, there is very little published anywhere in the safety genre about the emotions. If anything, the human unconscious and the emotions are often dictated as the enemy of safety. If anything, Safety despises the emotions because they diminish ‘control’ and there is nothing Safety is more fixated on than the language of control. No wonder Safety doesn’t understand nor study the emotions. No wonder Safety doesn’t know about semiotics and gesture. No wonder Safety communicates so poorly. Could it be that there could be opportunities for improvement outside of the Safety worldview ( ). I guess it just matters whether you want to make safety effective or not.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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