What COVID-19 has taught us about human communication

Covid Anniversary Blog

We all know what Zoom calls are like. They’re just not the same.

Pundits talk about ‘zoom fatigue’ – this weariness that results from this unnatural form of communication.

‘But what’s so unnatural about it?’ supporters say. You can hear the words (usually), you can see facial expression (when not frozen), indeed you can stare at the face without embarrassment, unlike real life.

‘But what about the hands?’ I ask.

‘Who’s bothered about people waving their hands about?’ they reply.

But hand-waving, it turns out, is always more than that. These movements are iconic representations of thoughts, often with information not in the speech. These dynamic gestural movements work alongside speech in the communication of meaning.

A proud parent is describing how her son was playing football, she said ‘he was running up the pitch’, the iconic gesture represented the speed and direction of the movement – fast and zig-zagging, as he beat the defenders – a new Maradona, no less! The iconic gesture occurred at exactly the same time as the word ‘running’ itself. It was not an afterthought. Rather, the speech and the gesture originated from what the psychologist David McNeill from the University of Chicago has called the ‘growth point’ of the utterance. The speech and gesture are generated at the same time, in the prelinguistic planning stage.

But it’s not just about actions. After lockdown, a colleague was spotted breaking her strict diet by a mutual friend. ‘She was eating a sandwich,’ the friend reported. The iconic gesture represented the size of the sandwich, hands wide apart – too big for any diet. The size of the sandwich was not mentioned in the speech, but perfectly coordinated.

We process these gestural messages effortlessly in face-to-face conversation, our eyes track these movements and we decode the critical information and combine it with the speech information to get the full meaning.

‘But hang on, Zoom is for serious discussion, it’s for work,’ says the Zoom supporter ‘not for football and sandwiches’.

But these iconic gestures also metaphorically enact abstract meaning, showing where ideas originate from with gestures indicating position in the gestural space and how quickly they arise (speed of gesture trajectory), how ideas connect (the hands are good at representing positional information in both the physical and metaphorical senses), they tell you how far somebody is prepared to go and the nature of their ambition (distance; height).

In my book ‘Rethinking Body Language’ (Routledge, 2016), I outline the science behind this. The hands are apparently able followers of Lakoff and Johnson in their seminal book ‘Metaphors We Live By’, who demonstrated how much of metaphorical language is premised on a physical conceptual basis.

On Zoom, we see none of this. COVID-19 has reminded us of the essential multimodal nature of everyday human communication and how different modalities, including gesture, cooperate to transmit meaning about the everyday world of actions, of ideas, of interpersonal relationship.

With Zoom, we’re just left guessing, and that can indeed be very fatiguing.

Geoffrey Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University. This piece is written as a follow-up to a post originally published in the COVID-19 blog on 11th May 2020 by Geoff which can be found here.

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