Every once in a long while, we see gesture raised to a high art. Amanda Gorman, our first National Youth Poet Laureate, presented her poem The Hill We Climb at the Biden-Harris inauguration on January 20—and, on February 7, was the very first poet to speak at the Super Bowl. Her words were inspirational. But so were her gestures.
Gorman is an original who moves her hands in ways that bring her thoughts to life. She choreographed her poem in a way that allowed us to know her, see her and feel her unique experience as a Black woman. Her gestures were designed to underscore her words, which they did beautifully. She pointed her two thumbs toward her shoulders as she said, “In a time where a skinny Black girl.” She then went on to say, “can dream of becoming president,” and made it clear that the dreams are hers as she moved her two hands gracefully away from her head.
Speakers of all languages and even signers gesture as they talk or sign, and these gestures play a vital role in how all of us––adults and children alike––communicate, think and learn. Watching Gorman shows us just how much of our hidden thoughts can be revealed in our hands––and how much we can learn from her, using our gestures in strategic ways to become better communicators.
Following the inauguration, during an interview with James Corden on The Late Show, Gorman described how she and her sister used to peek in as they passed the studio where Corden was shooting his show––we “put our faces to the iron gate,” she said holding her palms at the sides of her face, simulating her small face peering through that gate. Gorman said that being interviewed by Corden was “a full circle moment” for her, and she personalized the moment by crossing her two palms over her heart. Her gestures intensified our experience of her interview. Her gestures made it easier for us to enjoy the narrative. Gestures matter because they reveal our thoughts and strengthen our ability to communicate our needs and ideas. Amanda Gorman has mastered the art of using gesture to deliver her message. We need to learn from her.
Gestures are not mere hand-waving––they convey images that can magnify the speech they accompany. During the Super Bowl, Gorman recited her poem lauding three “captains” for their efforts as leader, healer and educator in an uncertain time. When describing how the ICU nurse-manager’s work will be chronicled, she used her hands to hold an imaginary book. She accented her description of frontline workers by drawing an imaginary line in the sand. She not only provided her audience with a vocabulary lesson, but graphically described what it means to put yourself in harm’s way, as a nurse in a hospital, an educator in and out of the classroom, and a friend and guardian to at-risk children.
Gestures offer a window onto our minds and can even expose thoughts we didn’t intend to communicate by adding ideas not found in speech. Such a moment occurred when Gorman described getting the invitation to present at the inauguration. She said, “I get this Zoom call,” while making a telephone gesture (thumb and pinky held to the ear). She showed us with her gesture that Zoom, a distanced and relatively inactive state, has not replaced collaborative and more traditional forms of communication for her.
Gestures not only tell us what is on peoples’ minds; they also tell us who is ready to change their minds. Consider two toddlers who cannot yet produce a two-word sentence. One points at a jar of bubbles while saying “bubbles” to get his mother to open the jar. The other produces a twist-open gesture while saying “bubbles.” The mothers open the bubble jar in both instances, but the second child will begin producing two-word sentences (e.g., “open bubbles”) several months before the first. Gesture tells us who is ready to make progress, and who is not.
Parents can also use the gestures their children produce to provide the right input at the right time. If a mother responds to her child’s “bubbles” plus twist-open gesture with, “Do you want me to open the bubbles?” she is not only translating her child’s gestures into words, but she is doing it at just the moment when the child is primed to learn the word “open.” Teachers can use their students’ gestures to figure out what each student understands and then tailor their instruction accordingly. Clinicians who work with children with perinatal brain injury can use children’s gestures at 18 months to figure out who will continue to display language delay at 30 months, and who will not. Gesture gives clinicians a peek at the future, and does it before the delay becomes intractable.
We are in a period when communication is uneasy and misunderstandings are rampant. It would help to learn to punctuate our conversations with gestures that deepen the meaning and intent of our words. We need also to pay attention to this aspect of our body language to minimize potential threats to others. Gesture can’t solve the problems we have in understanding each other, but recognizing how much of our minds is hidden in our hands is an important first step.
This is an opinion and analysis article.