We Brazilians are famous for being expressive — not just vocally, but gesturally (after all, what’s music without some dancing to go with it?). So where does this talent for talking with our hands come from? Perhaps we inherited it from our Italian great-grandmothers (there have been several waves of Italian immigration to Brazil over the last century-and-a-half); or maybe it comes from our even older African and Portuguese roots. One thing is certain: We Brazilians have invented many gestures that are unique to our country.
Living in Berlin — a city with a culture I can honestly say is the opposite of my native São Paulo — has allowed me to observe our behavior from an impartial distance. (That’s right, I said observe, like I’m an anthropologist or something.) Daily contact with other cultures — not only German but also Spanish, French, Italian and even Iranian — has given me a new perspective on the Brazilian mindset. Like the great Jose Saramago once said, “You have to leave the island in order to see the island.”
It was only after moving to Germany that I realized the enormous quantity of gestures I make every day (mainly because everyone pointed it out to me). And, after many suspicious glances, erroneous assumptions and hilarious misunderstandings, I came to the conclusion that the non-verbal language of Brazil doesn’t always translate. Knowing how much these gestures fascinate non-Brazilians, I decided to take a closer look into our habit of gesticulating.
We know it’s not just a Brazilian thing — everyone does it. And although gestures are pretty much universally used when speaking, particular gestures vary according to cultural and social context. Some nationalities gesticulate wildly, some hardly at all — and a harmless gesture among one group might be deeply offensive to another.
At their most basic level, it appears gestures also help us think. In a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers tested 50 students on vocabulary and verbal working memory — the ability to retain, change and adjust words in our minds. Between the tests, students were shown short Tom and Jerry clips and asked to describe what they saw. The result? The students with poorer verbal working memories (but otherwise strong vocabulary) had the tendency to gesticulate much more while describing what they had just seen.
The study suggests that gestures can help cognitive processes when working memory fails us. Gestures might even free up working memory, untangling the mental mess we can get into when we want to express ourselves. If you think of the “mind” of a country like Brazil, influenced by so many cultures and languages over the centuries, it makes sense that gestures would have been relied upon to communicate efficiently. Another study detected that gestures can even alter our ability to feel empathy. Maybe that’s why Brazilians are considered so friendly and welcoming?
The video above shares just a small sample of Brazilians’ non-verbal vocabulary, and it reveals how strange these gestures can seem to people from other countries. If you’re Brazilian, it doesn’t matter how many languages you speak or how many places you have been, being Brazilian is always going to show through somehow — most likely through your hands.