Types of Gestures

Types of Gestures

What are the types of gestures?

While Dr. Ekman's research largely focused on nonverbal communication and, specifically, how facial expressions relay emotional experiences, he also identified three types of gestures: illustrators, manipulators, and emblems. These movements typically utilize the hands and, occasionally, the head and shoulders, and are used during or in-place of verbal communication.
The Meaning of Gestures

Illustrator Gestures

Illustrator gestures are what some people may refer to colloquially as "talking with your hands," as they "illustrate" what we are saying. Illustrators occur during speech as it is spoken. They are used to provide emphasis, to make an action the speech is describing, to trace the flow of thought, to show spatial relationships, or to draw a picture in the air.

How illustrator gestures are used

While hands are used most frequently, we can (and do) also illustrate with the face, upper trunk, or entire body. There are ethnic and cultural differences in the type of illustrators shown as well as individual differences in the type and frequency of illustrators used. Illustrators often increase with our excitement and involvement in what is being said and listeners are usually more attentive to people when they illustrate their speech.

Illustrators and deception

Illustrators decrease when someone is being cautious about what's being said, such as when lying or feeling nervous. Therefore, a decrease in illustrators can sometimes be a clue to deception or hidden emotions. However, you must be careful to rule out the possibility that other factors are at play before assuming a decrease in illustrators is a sign of deception.

Manipulator Gestures

Manipulator gestures are movements in which one body part "manipulates" or interacts with another part of the body (i.e. one part of the body grooms, massages, rubs, holds, pinches, picks, scratches, etc. another body part).

What do manipulator gestures look like?

Typically the hand is the manipulator, though the hand may also be the recipient, as can other parts of the body such as the hair, ears and nose. Manipulators also can be performed within the face. In addition to the body, props may also become part of a manipulator act, like twirling a pencil or bending a paperclip.

Examples of manipulator gestures


When manipulator gestures are used

There are large individual differences in how often people show manipulators and which they typically use. We often observe an increase with discomfort (emotionally, physically, psychologically), though the use of manipulators can also increase when people feel more relaxed and "let their hair down". These types of gestures are often at the edge of people’s consciousness meaning we can have conscious awareness and control over them, but most people cannot suppress them for very long as people are accustomed to performing these behaviors.

The amount of time a manipulator is used varies largely. Some of the brief ones may appear to have a purpose (such as rearranging hair or a part of the body is scratched), whereas those that last a long time often seem to be purposeless (such as twisting hair, rubbing fingers or tapping feet).


Manipulator gestures and deception

Observers often mistakenly infer that someone is lying or untrustworthy when they show manipulators. It is true that manipulators often increase with discomfort, however there can be many reasons why someone may feel discomfort (apart from lying). Also, manipulators can increase for the opposite reason, such as when someone feels more relaxed or care-free. Furthermore, liars know they should try to suppress their use of manipulators as it has become part of the general folklore that manipulators signal discomfort or nervousness. As such, most liars will succeed in not displaying them.

Emblem Gestures

Emblems, a term first used by researcher, David Efron, describe gestures that have very precise meanings known within an ethnic, cultural, or sub-cultural group. Emblems are used as deliberately and consciously as spoken words, and are unique in that they can be used in conjunction with or in place of words.

Examples of emblem gestures

Emblems are most frequently expressed with the hands, though can also be communicated through the head, shoulders, and face.

Here are some familiar Western emblems, categorized by body part:

  • Hands/fingers: giving someone the finger, the "OK" thumb-to-index finger sign, a wave hello or goodby, a hand-to-ear "please speak louder", a "come-here" beckoning hand movement, a hitchhiker’s thumb
  • Head: a head-nod yes or head-shake no
  • Body: a shoulder shrug

When emblem gestures are used

Emblem gestures can either be used in place of words or in addition to words being said. Sometimes, they are used in place of words when it would be difficult or inappropriate to use words. We see this when it's important to stay quiet during a play or while hunting. Another example would be when scuba diving and one is not able to use speech to communicate. When emblems are used during speech they can be used to replace or repeat a word, such as when someone both verbally says hello and also waves, or when someone nods their head to say "yes" during a discussion.

Emblem gestures and deception

Emblems are almost always performed deliberately, as someone chooses to relay a message, but there are exceptions. Just as there are "slips of the tongue", there can be "slips of the body". Known as emblematic slips, these movements leak information a person is trying to conceal, often without their knowledge. While not every liar shows emblematic slips, if they do occur, they are quite reliable clues to deception, second only to micro expressions.

Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions in his best-seller, Emotions Revealed