Writ­ing’s on the wall for ges­tur­ing for a bill

Many hand sig­nals, such as for us­ing a phone or telling the time, make no sense to young peo­ple, say ex­perts

The Daily Telegraph - - Front Page - By Vic­to­ria Ward and Max Stephens

Many com­mon hand sig­nals we use such as writ­ing in the air to get the bill or the tap on the wrist to ask the time are at risk of dy­ing out be­cause they make no sense to young peo­ple, ex­perts say. Card pay­ments have re­duced the need for cheque­books and most young peo­ple use their mo­bile phones rather than a watch to tell the time. Vyv Evans, a lin­guist, said: “Younger gen­er­a­tions will not know what these sig­nals are … as tech­nol­ogy changes, they lose their value.”

IT is one of the most widely recog­nised ges­tures in the western world − a hand to the ear, lit­tle fin­ger and thumb ex­tended, some­times with the added flour­ish of a wig­gle, to sym­bol­ise a phone call.

But as the land­line turns into a thing of the past, this com­monly recog­nised hand sig­nal, as well as many oth­ers based on older tech­nol­ogy, is likely to be­come ob­so­lete, ac­cord­ing to lan­guage ex­perts.

Vyv Evans, a pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics and a com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­pert, said such ges­tures that have a spe­cific mean­ing – known as em­blems – are of­ten cul­tur­ally or gen­er­a­tionally spe­cific.

He said: “Em­blems that are spe­cific to par­tic­u­lar de­vices will only be recog­nised by those who are fa­mil­iar with such de­vices. As tech­nol­ogy changes, they lose their value.”

Sim­i­larly, the cir­cu­lar mo­tion used to in­di­cate the wind­ing up or down of a car win­dow, is on its way out – as could be the sign of hold­ing up the fin­gers and rub­bing them to­gether to in­di­cate cash.

The tap on the wrist to ask the time or in­di­cate some­one is late is also likely to be lost in trans­la­tion with younger gen­er­a­tions who rely solely on mo­bile phones to tell the time. And the ubiq­ui­tous writ­ing in the air ges­ture used by din­ers to show they are ready for the bill will also be­come a thing of the past as the use of cheque­book and sig­na­ture for pay­ment is con­signed to his­tory.

Dr Evans said: “Younger gen­er­a­tions just will not know what these sig­nals are. Red phone boxes are all but dis­ap­pear­ing from the streets, land­lines that you picked up and held in a par­tic­u­lar way are rarely used. Peo­ple use smart­phones now and they are held very dif­fer­ently. Sim­i­larly, the tra­di­tional way of in­di­cat­ing a film in the game cha­rades, by mo­tion­ing an old-fash­ioned reel movie cam­era, will go the same way.

“As peo­ple are no longer ex­posed to such tech­nol­ogy, the em­blems associated with them drop out of us­age.”

A Tiktok video went vi­ral re­cently af­ter New Yorker Daniel Al­varado re­marked “this is how you know you’re get­ting old” when he showed how his chil­dren each held a flat palm to the side of their face to in­di­cate a mo­bile phone.

Dr Adam Schem­bri, a reader in lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham, agreed that, just like words, em­blem­atic ges­tures would come and go in time. “My 18-year-old stu­dents un­der­stand the land­line phone ges­ture, for ex­am­ple, but the land­line is still within their lived ex­pe­ri­ence so they can still make that con­nec­tion.

“It might be that in the fu­ture, when peo­ple have no lived ex­pe­ri­ence of these things, that such ges­tures are used less and less as they be­come less mean­ing­ful.”

He ex­plained: “It’s a com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem. Sub­cul­tures, like gangs, have their own ges­tures − they have their own mean­ing in the same way that words do.”

Some­thing strange is hap­pen­ing to hand ges­tures. We of­ten think them uni­ver­sally com­pre­hen­si­ble, though if you have ever tried to di­rect a dog by point­ing, the lim­its be­come clear. But it is still sur­pris­ing to find, as we report to­day, that young peo­ple – those born this cen­tury – don’t un­der­stand the in­ter­na­tional sign for get­ting the bill in a restau­rant, by writ­ing in the air. Nor, ap­par­ently, do they know the ges­ture for giv­ing some­one a phone call later. It is no ex­pla­na­tion that the horn-like ex­ten­sion of the thumb and lit­tle fin­ger no longer rep­re­sents what a phone looks like, for the older sign of crank­ing a mag­neto has sur­vived the ex­tinc­tion of that tech­nol­ogy. The lan­guage of flow­ers has with­ered and driv­ers’ hand-sig­nals are long gone, but when it comes to the death of daily hand ges­tures, words fail us.

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