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Kinesics is the interpretation of body language such as facial expressions and gestures — or, more formally, non-verbal behavior related to movement, either of any part of the body or the body as a whole.

The term was first used (in 1952) by Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist who wished to study how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement. Part of Birdwhistell's work involved making film of people in social situations and analyzing them to show different levels of communication not clearly seen otherwise. The study was joined by several other anthropologists, including Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.

Drawing heavily on descriptive linguistics, Birdwhistell argued that all movements of the body have meaning (ie. are not accidental), and that these non-verbal forms of language (or paralanguage) have a grammar that can be analyzed in similar terms to spoken language. Thus, a "kineme" is "similar to a phoneme because it consists of a group of movements which are not identical, but which may be used interchangeably without affecting social meaning" (Knapp 1972:94-95).

Birdwhistell estimated that "no more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words."[citation needed] He also concluded that there were no universals in these kinesic displays - a claim disproved by Paul Ekman's analysis of universals in facial expression.

A few Birdwhistell-isms are as follows:

  • Social personality is a temporo-spatial system. All behaviors evinced by any such system are components of the system except as related to different levels of abstractions.
  • Even if no participant of an interaction field can recall, or repeat in a dramatized context, a given series or sequence of body motions, the appearance of a motion is of significance to the general study of the particular kinesic system even if the given problem can be rationalized without reference to it.
  • All meaningful body motion patterns are to be regarded as socially learned until empirical investigation reveals otherwise.
  • No kineme ever stands alone.

In one current application, kinesics are used as signs of deception by interviewers. Interviewers look for clusters of movements to determine the veracity of the statement being uttered. Some related words may be:

  • Emblems - Substitute for words and phrases
  • Illustrators - Accompany or reinforce verbal messages
  • Affect Displays - Show emotion
  • Regulators - Control the flow and pace of communication
  • Adaptors - Release physical or emotional tension

Kinesics are an important part of non-verbal communication behavior. The movement of the body, or separate parts, conveys many specific meanings and the interpretations may be culture bound. As many movements are carried out at a subconscious or at least a low-awareness level, kinesic movements carry a significant risk of being misinterpreted in an intercultural communications situation.

See also


  • Birdwhistell, R. 1970. Kinesics and Context. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
  • Knapp, M. 1972. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Reinhart and Winston Inc., New York.
  • McDermott, R. 1980. Profile: Ray L. Birdwhistell, The Kinesis Report 2, 3: 1-16.

External references

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