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Body language falls into the category of paralanguages which describes any form of communication which does not use the spoken word. Sign language also belongs in that category. Body language is as old as mankind and a powerful tool of communication. It's estimated that about 50 - 65% of all communication is conducted by body language, a fact which shows how important the use and interpretation of body language is in the context of human intercourse.
Body language can be divided into two sub-categories: conscious and purposeful use of gestures and facial expressions and the involuntary use, reflecting reactions to certain situations and emotions. It's also important to be aware of the fact that body language is used and interpreted differently in different cultures and countries. The same gesture does by no means mean the same thing in one country as it does in another.
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Most common gestures
An example for different interpretation is the gesture which indicates: "follow me." Whereas in some countries, like Germany or the UK, the hand is outstretched, palm open, fingers pointing upward and a scooping motion is made toward the body, the same gesture is made in for instance, Spain and Turkey with the fingers pointing down. Using the "fingers upward" position would indicate a sexual interest.
Another gesture involving fingers is the formation of a circle with thumb and forefinger. Here the significance reaches from approval (that's fine, that's OK) in Europe to a downright insult (you are a pig) in Turkey.
Crossing your arms over your chest is another very common gesture. It can mean different things in different situations. In a friendly conversation, the gesture can indicate: "I'm at ease listening to you and interested in what you have to say." In a crowded place however, crossing the arms is often done involuntarily as a sign of erecting a barrier to avoid invasion of private and personal space.
Constant eye contact in a conversation can signal interest in what the other person has to say. However, it can also mean distrust in the following sense: "I don't trust you, I don't dare take my eyes off of you in case you cheat me."
All the above gestures are made voluntarily as well as involuntarily. They are also techniques used skilfully in interviews or interrogations.
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Some specific gestures
Here are two very specific and meaningful gestures and their interpretation in Europe as opposed to Turkey.
Lifting your hand and making a circling motion with your fingers means in Turkey: "I don't believe you, you're crazy." In many other countries, the same gesture signals some impatience in the sense of:" Go on, but hurry, I haven't got all day."
Pulling down the lower lid of your eye with your index finger means in Turkey: "You're lying", whereas in several other countries it's an expression of curiosity.
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Sign language was actually been invented in the 17th century in Spain by Juan Pablo Bonet, as a help to communicate with the deaf and dumb. It was refined in the 18th century by Charles Michel de l'Epee, who published a sign language alphabet which is, more or less, still in use. Sign language was, of course, never used involuntarily but is often accompanied by body language in the same way as the spoken language is. There are as many sign languages as there are oral languages and some, like the Warlpiri sign language as used by Australian Aborigines, are extremely elaborate.