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10 Meanings Behind The Things We Do

Updated on August 26, 2015

There are a number of basic things we all do, whether they be gestures, such as giving someone a thumbs up to express approval, or innate bodily responses, like yawning when we are bored or tired. We have all probably rolled our eyes at one point or another when we were annoying with something we saw. How do we learn to do this? Why is it that every person in the world understands the meaning behind nodding and shaking one's head despite a difference in spoken language? There are valid scientific and historical explanations for everything we do: Arm crossing, gift giving, smirking, and so much more.

1. Thumbs up as a sign of approval

Why do we commonly express our non-verbal approval with a sign of thumbs up? Using thumbs to send non-verbal cues is thought to date back to the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome. When it became clear that one fighter was about to lose, the crowd would form a public consensus as to what the loser's fate should be: Life or death? Members in the attendance would signify this with a series of gestures, one of which was a thumbs-up motion; however, the explanation for this is not as simple as one might think. The misconception of the meaning behind 'thumbs-up' and 'thumbs-down' dates as far back as 1872 with a painting by Jean-Leon Gerome. Thumbs-down was taken as a form of disapproval and, thus, the opposite became true of our interpretation of thumbs-up. From this public misunderstanding two positions have arisen amongst scholars. One position states that we have these gestures backwards and thumbs-up actually signifies disapproval, while thumbs-down represents one's approval. Another group believes that approval was actually indicated with a closed fist, the misconception a result of translation errors, and thumbs, whether up or down, indicated disapproval. Regardless of which belief is the correct one, a gladiator looking to the crowd to determine his fate would not have wanted to see a thumbs up because, regardless of the interpretation, a thumbs up meant sure death.

2. The middle finger as a sign of defiance and insult

In the past decade, the middle finger has become a non-verbal means of saying, "f**k you"; however, the origin of this widely-known insult dates all the way back to 4th century BC. According to Greek historians, the middle finger was first used by philosopher Diogenes, who disdainfully showed his disapproval of orator Demosthenes with a gesture of defiance we today call "the middle finger". For over two millennia, this gesture has been recognized as a means of insulting others due to its phallic appearance and ability to incite rage in those on the receiving end. Varying forms of the middle finger have been spotted throughout history and across species. In performing the "bras d'honneur", or arm of honor, the French would raise their forearms with the backs of their hands facing the enemy and proceed to grab their elbows with their opposite hands as a phallic gesture. However, these obscene gestures are not strictly limited to humans. Male squirrel monkeys in South America have been known to display obscene gestures to other male squirrel monkeys just as humans do when they "flip the bird". Over time, the middle finger has come to signify rage and protest rather than a phallic gesture.

3. Nodding and shaking our heads to say "yes" or "no"

It is common knowledge that most people nod their heads to show approval and shake their heads to show disapproval, but what if I told you that in some countries this is not the case? In fact, in some parts of the world these motions are flip-flopped. Charles Darwin even felt inclined enough to write a book it. His work is called "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals", in which his goal was to find out if there were any expressions or gestures humans used that were universal to all humans. Upon asking many different cultures how they portrayed their approval and disapproval, the nodding and shaking of heads to signify "yes" or "no" was a common response; however, many cultures nodded and shook their heads in slightly varied manners. One point Darwin noticed was that in some places, such as Bulgaria, the meanings of the two gestures were completely reversed. In Bulgaria, shaking one's head was used as a way of showing approval and nodding as a form of disapproval. Seeing as these two gestures existed in some shape or form all around the world, Darwin had reason to believe that these responses were somewhat innate. He noted that babies who refused food would often turn their heads from side to side, whereas if they woke up feeling inclined to eat they would move their heads forward in a nodding gesture. That being said, it is possible that perhaps the act of nodding and shaking our heads is an innate non-verbal response acquired at birth.

4. Arm crossing when irritated

What do you think of when you picture an angry mother? If you're anything like me, you imagine a woman with her arms crossed, tapping her foot against the floor. Despite being only two, a small child will immediately recognize that he is in trouble? How? And why is it that blind people use the same body language as those who can see? Body language, such as the crossing of arms, is more innate to all humans than the facial expressions we use or the language we speak. As Amy Cuddy says, "our non-verbals govern how other people think and feel about us" (Link 4). Thus, arm crossing can be viewed as a means of reflecting displeasure with a situation due to the closed-off stance it presents. In a way, this reflects that the user is not open to an argument but instead has her mind made up on the matter.

5. Yawning to reflect exhaustion or boredom

Have you ever seen someone else yawn and then, as a result, felt a compelling urge to yawn yourself? Yawning is contagious. We yawn when we are tired, we yawn when we are bored, and we even yawn simply because we saw someone else yawn. It is a common misconception that yawns are the result of our brain needing more oxygen, but this is not the case. Based on a recent studies, yawning is believed to be controlled by a mechanism in the human brain. Much like computers regulate their temperatures with cooling fans, humans must regulate the temperatures of their brains by yawning. That being said, the fact that we yawn after seeing others around us yawn can be attributed to the fact that we are occupying the same environment as them. Thus, we too yawn to regulate our brain's temperature. The reason behind why we yawn when we are tired is entirely due to the temperature fluctuations in the brain that are associated with exhaustion, boredom, and stress.

6. Gift giving as a sign of gratitude

As humans, we often feel compelled to give gifts to others as signs of appreciation. We give gifts to celebrate birthdays and to commemorate meaningful events. In fact, we even give gifts in the form of flowers to comfort those suffering from the loss of a loved one. Psychologists, anthropologists, marketers, and economists have long studied the human behavior behind the act of gift giving. In fact, this behavior dates back thousands of years. Think about it: During the first Thanksgiving, the Native Americans presented the pilgrims with crops as a means of forming a bond with them. This was a common practice for many cultures known as a "potlatch". Potlatches are ceremonies that are designed to celebrate extreme gift giving. In this instance, wealth was not determined by who "had" the most, but instead by who "gave" the most. Nowadays, gift giving is still a means of bonding with others and, much like back in the days of potlatches, evidence shows that the biggest psychological reward is awarded to the gift giver rather than the receiver. Giving gifts has historically helped to defined and strengthen human relationships, which is why it is still around today.

7. Goosebumps in times of fear

Did you ever read the Goosebumps series by R.L Stine as a child? Goosebumps was a collection of scary stores intended to, as the name states, give you goosebumps. As humans, we associate goosebumps with feeling cold or scared, but what is the purpose of those little bumps that form along your skin? In animals, goosebumps are often used to create insulation against the cold in times of lower temperatures. In addition to this, because goosebumps also cause the hair to stand on end, they can be used to create the illusion that an animal is bigger than it actually is. Thus, goosebumps are a fear mechanism used to scare off predators the animal perceives to be a threat by displaying a raised fur coat. It has been proven by doctors that goosebumps have no beneficial purpose for humans as we do not have enough hair to provide either of these effects. Thus, the existence of goosebumps in humans may be an indicator that, at one time or another, we had more hair than we do now.

8. Smirking at the misfortune of others

Smirking is a fairly common reaction in humans who are looking down upon the actions of others--most often those we do not view in the best light. A businessman smirks at his fellow co-worker when he makes a silly err that might end up costing him a huge promotion; likewise, you may smirk at someone you dislike when he says something embarrassing. It has been proven through research that people are biologically wiredto take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. In fact, we tend to smile more when enjoying others' pain. This reaction is known as "Schadenfreude". While this innate response is not usually taken to the extreme, there are some outliers, often called "psychopaths" and "sociopaths", who actually experience joy at the expense of others. Nonetheless, studies have shown that we are more likely to smile when negative things happen to those we dislike. Why is this? The act of smirking often correlates with jealousy and envy. Thus, smirking is our body's natural reaction to the misfortunes of those whose status we are jealous or envious of.

9. Snoring

Okay--so we don't all snore when we sleep. Some of us do, some of us don't, and still others are in denial on the matter. What causes snoring, and why do some of us snore while others don't? Snoring is the sound caused when the structures of the upper airway vibrate during inhalation. When you sleep, your muscles relax, making it easier for parts of the airway that lack cartilaginous support to vibrate, thus causing snoring. Snoring itself is not a problem but, rather, indicates the possibility of a larger problem. Risk factors for snoring include weight gain, allergies, nasal obstruction, and other problems. While snoring itself can indicate a larger problem, research has proven that 20% of normal children snore occasionally, with 7-10% snoring every night (Link 8). That being said, the difference between snorers and non-snorers has to do with the way our muscles relax when we are asleep.

10. Eye rolling to express contempt

Everyone rolls their eyes. I roll my eyes, you probably roll your eyes, and even the president of the United States, Barack Obama, rolls his eyes. The funny thing about eye rolling is that it didn't always indicate contempt. In fact, centuries ago, eye rolling used to indicate the exact opposite: A look of lust. Eye rolling has been cited in numerous literary works dating back to the 15th century. It wasn't until the 1980s that eye rolling became an act of non-verbal contempt. Human ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt noted in his 1989 book, "Human Ethology", that many cultures have similar gestures for rejection, each of which involves turning away from the undesired person. In a way, rolling our eyes is our way of non-verbally indicating that we would like to look away from a person without actually looking away--because, of course, that would be rude.


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