Bringing ‘Awkward’ back: gesture-based communication

Co-written by Vinita Israni and me (Jessica Pang)

Disclaimer: We recognize that the following gestures are based on American and Australian sign language, and may not have the same meaning across other countries and cultures. Sincere apologies if there’s anything offensive, but know that we mean all the right intentions.

Quote of 2021 + 2021: “You’re on mute”
Quote of 2021 + 2021: “You’re on mute”

After a year of trial-and-error working from home (WFH), we’re finally getting the hang of communicating effectively without physical face time. Using tools like Google Meet’s polls and virtual whiteboards like Miro, we have found ways to replicate the physical components of collaboration over Zoom calls. But what about the good old ways of communication using hand gestures?

Gestures have always been an important part of our language. In the world of digital interactions, we regularly use 👍🏻 on social media, 👋🏻 to say hello and 👏🏻 to congratulate. As designers, we have also been using gestures as part of our toolkit to facilitate conversations, engage our teams or just to lighten up the mood 🙌🏻.

So the question is how might we translate these physical gestures into something that is equally if not more effective at virtual meetings?

Jazz hands

Did you know that jazz hands actually originate from sign language?

Hold your hands up and wave your hands (left) or wiggle your fingers (right) swiftly
Hold your hands up and wave your hands (left) or wiggle your fingers (right) swiftly

In both American Sign Language and Auslan (Australian Sign Language), jazz hands symbolize applauding a person.

From times when we are on mute to simply adding an additional expression to our style of working, we can take many of our cues from Sign Language. Borrowing from existing conventions also help boost our communication skills in an environment where we are deprived of body language.

Staring at someone’s face is only one piece of the communication puzzle. For example, gauging how people react to conflict and feedback involves reading both facial expressions as well as body language. As humans, we dynamically adapt our words and body language to make sure our intent is communicated clearly.

Jellyfish

While seemingly silly, I first picked this up after reading a Harvard Business School article.

Create a claw that is about to grab something, then release the fingers and follow in a motion from bottom to top
Create a claw that is about to grab something, then release the fingers and follow in a motion from bottom to top

My team leader cannot stop using it — mostly on himself. It’s such a great way to acknowledge that you (or someone else) is off track but add some humor to the conversation as well.

Thumbs Up

The thumbs up signal is pretty universal. From the emoji indicating approval to becoming a metaphor for rating movies, it’s something that is simple and effective.

Create a closed fist with a wraparound thumb pointing upward
Create a closed fist with a wraparound thumb pointing upward

Thought to originate in Ancient Rome, the thumbs up was used in the context of gladiatorial combat. The phrase “pollice verso” was used by crowds to pass judgement on the defeated gladiator (to spare him or not!).

While quite simple, it works effectively in many contexts. For one, it replaces the redundancy of asking “can you see my screen[share]?”, waiting for people to unmute just to say “yes”, and then re-muting themselves again. Instead, a simple “thumbs up if you can see my screen” will do the trick.

In design contexts, it’s also effective for running meetings or workshops to quickly gauge agreement and sentiment from the team.

Timeout

Commonly used in sports, this is a call (sometimes cry) for a halt in the game for the team to take a breather and discuss strategy at critical points of the game. In cricket, this is also used by players to invite a new and unbiased view of a third umpire to assess the game situation.

Hold both hands out flat, hold one hand pointing to the sky and position the other hand flat on top of it to form a ‘T’ shape
Hold both hands out flat, hold one hand pointing to the sky and position the other hand flat on top of it to form a ‘T’ shape

Minus the usual deafening ring of the whistle, this is a great way to diffuse heated or tense meetings by pausing and letting people recollect themselves.

Awkward turtle (with swag)

We’d all be lying if we didn’t say there weren’t some awkward silences in meetings — both remote and in-person. Why not acknowledge the silence? A celebration of social discomfort with the awkward turtle!

Put one hand flat atop the other with both palms facing down, thumbs stuck out to the sides and rotating to look like flippers + optional swag
Put one hand flat atop the other with both palms facing down, thumbs stuck out to the sides and rotating to look like flippers + optional swag

The awkward turtle is mostly used both playfully and ironically (in a cultural sense). As a part of the American Sign Language and Auslan, it started as the gesture for “sea turtle” (or “platypus” according to others) around 2006.

Instead of using words, consider incorporating the awkward turtle gesture into your everyday vernacular.

Who the f*** knows

I learned this one from one of my team members and it was passed down from her grandfather. Sometimes, you just simply don’t know the answer to a question someone asks and you’re just a little frustrated. Why not just share that in a gesture?

Wrap your pointer finger and thumb together creating a circle, hold that up to your nose
Wrap your pointer finger and thumb together creating a circle, hold that up to your nose

The first time I saw this, I rolled over laughing, but quickly I realized it was quite helpful. The pun-tastic nature of this one just adds to its beauty.

Bonus: Awkward Turkey + Awkward Palm Tree

If by chance, you are in the office and a fellow designer decides to high-five you, why not make a turkey out of it (brush turkeys acceptable if you live on the North side)?

Pretend to high five your mate (like Vinita is doing on the right) and just before the high five, make a fist, stick your thumb out and twist your fisted hand.
Pretend to high five your mate (like Vinita is doing on the right) and just before the high five, make a fist, stick your thumb out and twist your fisted hand.

While part of the original craze of the awkward turtle movement, the awkward turkey came about when one person was trying to give a high-five while another was trying to give a fist bump — resulting in an awkward turkey.

For additional bonus points (we get it — you’re an achiever), palm tree and a palm tree in hurricane make for great laughs.

For Awkward palm tree, put your hands in a prayer position and awkwardly drop your hands so that it’s flailing mid-air. (left) To create the hurricane effect, shake your hands left and right to create chaos (right).
For Awkward palm tree, put your hands in a prayer position and awkwardly drop your hands so that it’s flailing mid-air. (left) To create the hurricane effect, shake your hands left and right to create chaos (right).

Bringing back body gestures

As we continue with a predominantly WFH work mode, it’s important that we don’t become lazy communicators. You can see that not only our gestures were doing the work, but our faces were too!

Next time you’re hosting a meeting or workshop, try these gestures (and facial expressions) to better engage your team and make communication more effective.

For more (awkward but hilarious) gestures to brighten up your day, see The Grand Gallery of Awkwards.

To learn more about gesture-based communication, check out:

Product Designer at Siteminder & Storyteller at jpang.io. Loves to fun(brain)storm, learn new things and travel.

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