20 October 2009

Churchill's perfect timing of his 'iron curtain' gesture

Watching Churchill's 'iron' curtain clip again yesterday got me thinking about posting a note on the timing of his gesture - at which point, there suddenly appeared a Twitter link to a book by a body language expert that included 'iconic' gestures as one of three types of gesture:

'Different types of gesture

'Iconic-gestures whose form displays a close relationship to the meaning of the accompanying speech

'Metaphoric-gestures that are essentially pictorial but the content depicted here is an abstract idea rather than a concrete object or event

'The Beat-movements that look as though they are beating out musical time' (full post HERE)

Although I always advise that three-parted typologies, whether from Marx, Freud or countless other theorists, need to be treated with caution (because the theorist probably stopped looking for more after the third one made the story seem complete enough to get it published), I don't have a problem with the idea that 'iconic gestures' are a distinct and frequently used type of gesture that do indeed relate to words that are coming out of a speaker's mouth.

I'm less certain, however, about the above distinction between 'iconic' and 'metaphoric' gestures - as it's not clear to me whether Churchill's downward hand movement relates to the words 'has descended' or the metaphor of an 'iron curtain' falling across Europe. Nor do I think there's any way of determining which of these it is, any more than I think it matters very much.


A far as I'm concerned, the most interesting thing about it is that it's a splendid illustration of perfect timing of an iconic gesture.

The first time I ever heard the term used was in a lecture by Emanuel Schegloff, one of the founders of conversation analysis, back in 1979, in which he observed that iconic gestures anticipate a word that's coming up any second now - i.e. they get under way just before the speaker actually says the word to which the gesture relates (E.A. Schegloff, 'On some gestures' relation to talk', in Atkinson & Heritage, Eds. Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 266-298 - Amazon link at bottom right of page).

This can be clearly seen in the Churchill clip, where his hand begins to move just as he starts to say "an iron curtain" and has fully descended by the time he gets to the word "descended'.

If you watch the video again, an interesting question to ask yourself is what it would have looked like had he started the gesture after saying the word "descended". Or think of an angler telling you that the fish he'd just caught was "huge" and then moving his hands apart to show just how huge it was.

In both cases, your answer is likely to be something like 'odd', 'mistimed', 'later than it should have been' or even 'vaguely amusing'

This is because one of the intriguing things about the way we use these iconic gestures is that timing them 'correctly' (i.e. start before saying the word) is something we learn in early childhood.


Sometimes, very young children will describe something before doing a gesture that relates to it - e.g. "It was really round", followed by drawing a circle in the air with their hands - the timing of which, is likely to be regarded by adults as 'cute' - but, as they grow older, they discover how to get the timing right.

No one ever tells them they'd been doing it 'wrong' or coaches them to get it 'right' - just as I have never found it necessary to coach adult speakers how to use iconic gestures (or would ever dream of doing so).



simon said...

Fascinating. For me, Churchill's gesture actually develops the metaphor into an area I'd not considered before. It looks less like a curtain than a guillotine.

Max Atkinson said...

Whatever it was, it was 'descending'!

Cesa-Perde said...

Thank yuou so much, So manythings change from those days...

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