The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues, from Adam’s-Apple-Jump to Zygomatic Smile, by David B. Givens (Spokane, Washington: Center for Nonverbal Studies Press), is a detailed examination of the ways we communicate without words. Take “zygomatic smile,” for instance:

Usage: Though we may show a polite grin or camera smile at will, the zygomatic or heartfelt smile is hard to produce on demand. While the former cue may be consciously manipulated (and is subject to deception), the latter is controlled by emotion. Thus, the zygomatic smile is a more accurate reflection of mood.

Anatomy. Lip corners curl upward through contraction of zygomaticus muscles; crow’s-feet show when the zygomaticus muscles are strongly contracted, and/or when orbicularis oculi muscles contract. In the polite (i.e., intentional, weak, or “false”) smile, lip corners stretch sideward through contraction of risorius muscles, with little upward curl and no visible crow’s-feet.
Evolution. The smile-face may be traced to the primate’s grimace or fear grin. The submissive grin, used to show “I am afraid,” came to suggest that “I am harmless—and therefore friendly—as well” (Morris 1994). The link between smiling and humor, love, and joy has yet to be explained.
Feedback smile. Smiling itself produces a weak feeling of happiness. The facial feedback hypothesis proposes that “…involuntary facial movements provide sufficient peripheral information to drive emotional experience” (Bernstein et al. 2000). According to Davis and Palladino (2000), “…feedback from facial expression [e.g., smiling or frowning] affects emotional expression and behavior.” In one study, e.g., participants were instructed to hold a pencil in their mouths, either between their lips or between their teeth. The latter, who were able to smile, rated cartoons funnier than did the former, who could not smile (Davis and Palladino 2000).

That’s less than half the entry, which goes on to discuss Peter Jennings, Dr. Irving Smigel (a New York dentist who created the Supersmile product line), the “supermarket mandatory smile,” salesmanship, and the smiley face, as well as providing a list of “research reports.” And there’s much, much more; the book is a real treasure trove. (Via dublog.)


  1. i’d question the assumption that nonverbal signals can be ascribed universal meanings like this. i’m not sure any entry really captures the full range of meanings the particular gesture can have in different cultures and contexts. i’m further troubled that one man appears to have compiled this entire list with no reference to any non-english sources.
    i presented research at the first international gesture conference on differences in gesture use between cultures. i’m far from an expert on gesture, but i think most of the experts on gesture were at this conference and i don’t see many of their names on the reference list.

  2. Hmm. Well, that’s troubling. (And if you presented research at an international gesture conference, I’d say you qualify as an expert.) Do you have any links to better sources I could add to the post?

  3. dungbeattle says:

    “zygomatic “. something learnt. I am glad there is a word for a genuine smile, for I hate the “I’m on now smile, a cross between a leer and i’ve been to the dentist today, but look at my eyes, see I hate this on camera look too but the man in my ear says “smile” “I do not care that you have blisters on yer feet” ‘SMILE’ ‘ fool’.

  4. Gestures are certainly not universal and are very much a part of culture, just like spoken languages. For example, there’s nothing quite as disconcerting to a Westerner as watching a South-East Asian beaming the fullest “Zygomatic Smile” imaginable whilst being chewed out by their boss for doing something wrong.
    Gestures can also vary from one end of a country to the other, in some parts of India, a head shake, as in “no” actually means “yes” and a “nod”, as in “yes”, really means “no”. In other places that head shake become an exuberant rocking fom side to side.
    I’m also a little dubious of anyone who cites 1970’s talking head and general crank Desmond Morris as some kind of an authority (I couldn’t find the bibliography but this entry indicates that the Morris in question is in fact Desmond Morris).

  5. i’d question the assumption that nonverbal signals can be ascribed universal meanings like this.
    So would many people, but the idea that there are universals underlying the culture-specific variation is not yet dead. There’s the work of Paul Ekman, though he is far from controversial. Also, the fact that the Duchenne smile (this is a paper with some evidence from eye movement) is hardwired adds to the claim.

  6. john hardy says “Gestures are certainly not universal and are very much a part of culture, just like spoken languages” but i wouldn’t go that far. spoken languages have some universal traits, if only those that come directly from the physics of our bodies. i would assume the same to be true of nonverbal communication, but last i was looking at it (over a year ago), it wasn’t clear what was universal and what was cultural. perhaps my only problem with this dictionary is that it’s not titled “american nonverbal dictionary” or something that gives the reader more awareness that a head nod in japanese culture may not mean any of the things covered in this dictionary (but even then i suspect we’d eventually hear from someone about the “iowa head nod” meaning something entirely different).
    to answer language hat’s question: really, i’m not an expert. it was undergraduate research created with the very generous assistance of my professor. the most i could do is point you to what seems to be the current website for the “international society for gesture studies“.
    unfortunately, the original conference website is gone now, but if you look at what’s still there, you’ll see that gesture is approached from such a wide variety of perspectives that it’s hard to take a good slice out of all that work to make something like a nonverbal dictionary. (for starters, what about all those gestures that exist as part of more formal sign languages?) i had a hard enough time trying to make sure my narrowly focused research made some sense in the context of previous related work.
    i realize the analogy isn’t perfect, but imagine someone tried to create a verbal dictionary with no mention of russian language. i could easily say “what about russian?”, without speaking any russian. this is how i feel about the nonverbal dictionary. i can easily criticize it for what it’s missing, but i’m not in any position to fill in the gaps.

  7. When I spent a year overseas, I found I could often spot Americans by their facial expressions; there is dialect here as in much else.

  8. The thing a lot of people aren’t recognizing about non-verbal communication is that it’s all done on a biological level. Look at the studies presented in Eckman’s latest book for example. Genuine smiles cannot be faked. Period.
    Certain things such as nodding your head are obviously cultural, but things such as closing your body language (e.g., folding your arms) when you’re defensive and opening your body language when you’re comfortable are universal.

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