Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

The Word

What’s behind those Occupy hand signals

The power of a gesture language

Occupy Boston and its spiritual cousins across the country have already introduced a few new phrases into the popular lexicon, most notably “the 1%” (meaning an elite who control most of the world’s wealth) and “the 99%” (meaning everybody else, themselves included). And they’ve inspired some riffs on the movement’s name, with satirists calling on others to join an ironic revolution to “occupy” their couches, beds, and even pants.

If you’ve visited the protests, or seen them on television, you may have noticed another, more subtle kind of language emerging from the movement. At the nightly group meeting known as General Assembly, a series of odd hand signals pass through the crowd. While a single person speaks at the head of the group, other members may spontaneously raise two hands above their heads, face their palms forward, and start wagging their fingers back and forth to show they approve. If they disapprove, fingers silently wag downward with palms back. Forearms crossed above the head is called blocking, and it’s the closest the protesters come to shouting down an idea.

Continue reading below

Occupy has its own signal language, a way of talking that doesn’t involve talking at all. That finger-wagging approval signal, commonly called twinkles, is used in place of applause or verbal cheering. Some of the gestures can be quite specific: Protesters put their hands in the air in the form of a “C” to indicate that they have a “clarifying question”; if the rules of debate are being violated, they might signal a “point of order” (tips of each index finger meeting in a straight line) or call for a “point of information” (index finger raised in the air).

For skeptical observers, these silent hand signals are just one of many things about occupiers that seem silly or strange. The comedian Stephen Colbert recently had two representatives of the Occupy Wall Street movement on his show to explain their motives and their gestures. After listening to these two young people explain twinkling and blocking, he paused and deadpanned, “You guys seem like a cult.”

In their use of hand signals, however, the Occupy protesters are part of a long tradition--one with roots in other collective movements, and which also extends back through human history. Gesture systems, when they arise, can galvanize their users with a directness that speech doesn’t always share, and they have become interesting to researchers for their social effects, their mysterious origins, and their often remarkable staying power.

For the current protests, the signals are both practical and ideological. When large groups of people get together to debate, conversation can quickly devolve into noisy chaos; using silent signals helps keep order, and allows even the quietest among them to be heard. And as a matter of principle, the various Occupy movements around the country try to make decisions based on consensus, so the opinion of the group must constantly be evaluated by whoever is leading the meeting.

Progressive groups ranging from Quakers to anarchists have, over the years, used hand signals to reach collective decisions. The signal language of the Occupy movement traces back to the Direct Action Network, which most famously organized disruptive street protests in Seattle during the World Trade Organization conference in 1999. Though the Direct Action Network is credited with codifying the set of signals used to create consensus, some of the gestures were borrowed from other, earlier uses. The twinkle sign, for example, had been previously used in the deaf community to signal approval or applause.

This year, similar signals have popped up in protests around the world, from demonstrations in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square. Here in the United States, each Occupy movement has its own set of signals, with slight variations that almost amount to regional dialects.

Recurring gestures packed with precise meaning--what researchers variously call emblems, recurring forms, quotable gestures, or autonomous gestures--can perform all the functions of spoken language. They are a staple of contemporary life and emerge for a variety of reasons. Some arise when people need to communicate in noisy places or over long distances, like on airport runways or stock-exchange trading floors. Others develop as codes used by groups who value secrecy or misdirection, such as baseball teams or crime syndicates. Many have a further effect of bringing a group of people that uses them closer together, whether we’re talking about a clique of friends or a city block full of fed-up protesters.

“It has a quality of marking the group, and creating a clear boundary from others,” said David McNeill, head of the McNeill Lab Center for Gesture and Speech Research at the University of Chicago, who for nearly 50 years has studied unconscious hand movements that accompany speech, along with conscious gestures like these that replace it.

Compared to speech, McNeill said, physical gestures often have a very direct relationship to meaning, which helps explain the almost visceral appeal for people who adopt them. Often, the connection is visual, as with Occupy’s crossed-arms “block” signal, which forms a physical barricade against an idea, or with the “get on with it” gesture, rolling one hand over the other, which shows impatience at a never-ending process.

Susan Duncan, a researcher at the McNeill Lab, pointed to another visual signal, the OK sign, which seems to have developed independently in many places around the world. The movement where the tip of the index finger and the thumb come together, she explained, is known as the “precision grip.” It commonly comments on a situation when something very exact or precise has happened--to say, “Oh, that was perfect,” Duncan said.

-

Gus Wezerek/Globe Staff

That finger-wagging approval signal, commonly called twinkles, is used in place of applause or verbal cheering.

While spoken language changes very rapidly, McNeill explained, gestures can last for thousands of years. Perhaps none has been more imperishable than the middle finger, or digitus impudicus as it was known to the Romans, for whom it seems to have had the same vulgar sexual connotation it retains today. Researchers have combed through history to locate its origins, hoping to answer the larger question about how gestures that begin with specific meaning to one group can take on wider cultural significance.

Could the Occupy signals jump from their specialized usage to the broader culture? It is too soon to tell. But for some, the signs have already begun the slow leak into daily life.

“I’m Italian, so I already talk with my hands a lot,” said Acacia Brewer, an Occupy Boston protester. “But I’ve started doing it more. I’ve even started doing the block sign in real life. Like if someone says something good about the Yankees, I’ll put up a block.”

Ian Crouch is a writer living in Boston.
Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week