Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Common and obscure gestures

There are some systems of gestures that most people will recognize. For example, almost all adults understand the police hand signals for directing vehicle traffic. You could use them to add humor to almost any speech.

Referees in NBA basketball and NFL football games also use a variety of signals. Some are fairly iconic, like the NFL gesture for tripping. Others are more obscure, like the NBA gesture for traveling (similar to the NFL gesture for false start) with forearms and fists rotated over and over in front of the body. Are these movements meant to mimic the paddle wheel of a steamboat? They would be an amusing way to begin a speech about travel and its penalties.

Lots of work environments are too noisy for reliable communication via speech. Two years ago the New York Times showed the hand signals used by traders at the mercantile exchange. There are other systems for signaling to operators of forklifts, excavators, and mobile cranes. If your audience does construction, then you could add them to a speech and expect a chuckle.

One of the more obscure systems is used with helicopter pilots. The gesture shown above means “droop stops out.” You can find it discussed in Navy and Air Force manuals about flight operations, which also include signals for exciting events like “your engine is on fire.”

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