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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Oh, Yeah? Well, Buzz Off!

May 12, 1997|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The stuck-out tongue. The Bronx cheer. The single-finger salute.

Gestures speak louder than words, especially these age-old symbols of disdain and contempt. Human beings have used body language ever since our species first stood up on its hind legs, observes anthropologist Desmond Morris in "Body Talk" (Crown, 1994)--freeing our hands to flip each other off.

Since then, we have used our hands, tongues, faces and sometimes entire bodies as organs of communication.

Like our ancestors and fellow primates, we use gestures to communicate threats, aggression and fear--emotions that are a part of a web of behaviors related to our survival as a species.

Snakes stick out their tongues to sense their way about the world, but humans use their tongues to convey messages that vary widely in meaning around the globe.

When Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott stuck her tongue out at a person who complained about her bringing her dog to a news conference, most people dismissed it as a case of arrested development (age 3).

But among the Maori people of New Zealand, that there is a fighting gesture.

"It is performed during a Haka ceremony, which is part of a war party chant," says Dane Archer, a UC Santa Cruz psychology professor and maker of the documentary "World of Gestures: Culture and Nonverbal Communication." "It is supposed to inspire fear."

In parts of Europe, sticking the tongue out is a sexual come-on--if done right, anyway.

"It is revealing the tip of the tongue, moving it around and making it come back and forth out of the mouth," says David Givens, a Washington, D.C.-based anthropologist who studies nonverbal communication. "It is mostly a French and Western European thing."

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As expressions of disgust, spitting, the Bronx cheer, sticking out the tongue and even holding the nose are all derivations of what Givens calls the "Yuckface"--the gaping mouth, pinched nose and gagging that humans and other primates make in response to something vile in our mouths.

This is one gesture that social scientists agree has fairly universal meaning.

"You could go to the outback of New Guinea and put your face in that formation and they would know what you mean," says Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher.

Even chimps and other apes, which have the same facial musculature as humans, understand elements of the disgust face as a gesture of contempt.

"Chimpanzees sneer, raising the upper lip and crinkling the nose, usually at unpleasant objects or something they are not sure of," says Roger Fouts, a psychology professor at Central Washington University and director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute. Another universal expression is "the scowl . . . closed mouth with the lips pressed tightly together and then a direct stare." Cats, dogs and even squirrels scowl, lowering their eyebrows, flattening their ears, jutting the jaw and sometimes baring the teeth.

*

In 1976, Nelson Rockefeller made history when news photographers caught him flipping the finger to a heckler, an all-too-common sexual insult but one rarely used in public by vice presidents of the United States. This particular gesture was popular even in ancient Rome. The obscene gesture was so notorious in ancient times, however, that the middle finger became known as the digitus impudicus--the indecent finger, Morris writes. The notorious tyrant Caligula is said to have humiliated his subjects by offering his middle finger when extending his hand to be kissed.

Perhaps packing equal punch among great apes, says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta and author of numerous books on primates, is the up-swinging of one arm with the hand pointed upward, directed at another individual as a threat. In certain Italian neighborhoods, humans doing this would be saying . . . up yours.

The "kill gesture," says Fouts, is used by some chimps to express disdain for another chimp, a gesture that involves taking the back of the wrist and flicking it outward, the same motion used to thwack an insect dead. In human parlance, says Jinni Harrigan, a psychology professor at Cal State Fullerton, this hand movement generally means "get outta here."

But while numerous disgust expressions appear to translate from one culture to another, Archer warns that many seemingly neutral or happy gestures are read as obscenities in other cultures.

On a presidential visit to Australia, Archer says, "George Bush gave the V-for-victory sign with the palm facing him, which means 'screw you' in Britain. The Australians started yelling and screaming at him. They thought he was an incredibly rude guy.

"Interestingly enough, Margaret Thatcher led such a sheltered life in England that she used it and didn't even know it was obscene."

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