By Mordechai Schmutter

 

Have you ever seen someone making hand gestures while talking on the phone and you wondered why? After all, the other party can’t see it, right?

I’m making a “Why?” motion right now, with both hands, despite typing. But that’s OK, because I’m telling you.

Well, now we have the answer. According to a recent study at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands, people actually can tell if you’re making hand motions over the phone. Even if they don’t realize it.

And more people make hand motions on the phone than we realize. This is the reason they always say not to talk on the phone while you’re driving, even if you have a headset—because you need to make hand motions. And especially if you don’t have a headset, because if you’re holding the phone with one hand and you have to make hand motions with the other, what are you steering with?

And I don’t mean to sound racist, but when I hear an Israeli explaining something to me over the phone, I know he’s doing the hand motion. And you know which one I’m talking about.

You’re doing it right now. I can tell.

And this is a very important study — in our circles, especially, because using hands to talk has always been important for the Yidden. “Ha’kol kol Yaakov v’ha’yadayim yedei Eisav” is a nice concept, but we talk with our hands. Jews learned to talk with their hands from the very beginning because of things like Hamotzi. From birth, we know how to mime, “Bring me the salt so I can dip the challah into it.”

In fact, the sheer number of emojis involving Jewish hand gestures is staggering:

And you’d think that emojis, which express emotions, would just be faces.

So in light of this study, I say we should proceed with the hand gestures full force. Like for example, if a rebbe finds himself giving shiur over the phone again, chas v’shalom, and he’s worried about the students understanding him, he should put himself on speakerphone, turn up the mic sensitivity, and use both hands to darshen. This would also help phone chavrusos, parents settling arguments between their kids over the phone, and, of course, tech support.

And this can help society in even more ways than that. If hand gestures can help you communicate over the phone, kal v’chomer they would help in person when you’re wearing a face mask. After all, with people having a harder time understanding each other now that it turns out that we used to hear each other at least partially by reading lips, we should all be using hand gestures to communicate. Particularly while davening. For example, every rav giving a speech in a mask should definitely be using hand motions. Though they probably already do. And maybe the ba’al koreh should do the hand motions for the trop. I think more people would pay attention during leyning.

This is also why Zoom and FaceTime are so popular nowadays — it’s because of hand motions. It’s definitely not because you need to see the person’s face as they talk to you. That’s not so important. You don’t really spend Zoom calls looking at the person talking—you spend most it looking at yourself. And also making sudden movements and seeing how long it takes for your movement to be reflected on the screen.

So in that case, I suppose that any hand signal you put on Zoom is really just you waving at yourself. But at the very least, hand signals are important so you can let the host know (if he’s put everyone on mute) that he himself is on mute. I’ve spent some time teaching over the phone, and there is no moment when I’m 100% sure that the class can hear me. It’s possible a lot of them don’t know either. And the only signal they can give me is the “raise hand” button, which I pretty much ignore until it’s time for questions, because people are randomly raising it and lowering it all the time. Though it just now occurs to me that someone might be trying to send me a message in Morse code.

On the other hand, you ask, if gestures on the phone are so effective, why, when we first get on the phone, do we not give a little wave? The person will sense it, right? Why do we instead say, “Hello,” which is something we don’t normally say to each other in live social situations? It’s such an awkward word. You say it, and then it hangs in the air until the other person says something too. Unless what he says is, “Hello,” and then there are two hellos hanging there. Hello was invented for phone calls. But why not give a little wave or nod? Though, I suppose it’s not like we begin Zoom calls by waving or nodding either. Nor do we start those with “Hello” — just people blinking into existence and going, “Hello.” “Hello.” “Hello.” “Hello.” No, we begin Zoom chats by saying, “Am I on? Am I on? Can everyone hear me OK?” Maybe we should start phone calls that way too. (Admittedly, this is somewhat how cellphones used to work at first.)

Just imagine: The phone rings in your house and you pick up and say, “Am I on?”

“Am I on?”

“Am I on?”

“Am I on?”

“Stop saying, “Am I on?””

“OK, you’re on. Can I please speak to Chaim?”

“Sorry, wrong number.”

That wrong-number thing doesn’t happen so much with Zoom, where someone dials in and you see him and he goes, “Wait, this isn’t the chasunah!”

But gestures are definitely an important part of life. In fact, there’s another study that says that babies who are taught things using hand gestures pick it up quicker. And so do talmidim, maybe. In case you’re wondering why rebbeim are very much not into ArtScroll. Sure, ArtScroll is put together by knowledgeable rabbanim, but there are no hand gestures. Even a podcast shiur has hand gestures. Though I say that there should be a futuristic ArtScroll that features hand-gesture popups. It would take an entire book to get through one daf, but ArtScroll has never let that stop them before.

And it’s not just people. I recently came across an article titled “Study Finds Goats Can Understand Human Gestures,” so there’s that. Though to be honest, when I first came across that headline, I thought they meant all kinds of gestures. But it turns out that what the goats understand is the pointing gesture. It doesn’t mean that goats are going to understand some of the more complicated gestures, such as “Hold your horses,” “Please get the salt,” “I’m at a shiur,” “Have you seen my chicken?” or “Yes, that’s my husband.”

To conduct the study, researchers sat between two buckets — one filled with pasta and the other one empty—and they pointed at the full bucket and saw whether the goat would go for it. It did. Though it’s possible goats can just sense when a bucket is full of pasta. My kids can do that, and they don’t understand pointing.

The question is, do the goats understand whether you’re pointing? Like what if you give them the “one-minute; I’m still bentching” signal? Would they look up?

It’s also not clear whether the goats would understand our pointing gestures over the phone.

And finally, speaking of hands, a recent study indicates that if you’re arguing with someone and the two of you hold hands while you’re arguing, the argument becomes more productive and less destructive. So for example, if you get into a traffic disagreement, make sure to hold hands with the other person so it doesn’t escalate.

“No, no, it’s a study! I’ll show you the paper! Walk with me.”

I also think candidates should do this during the debates. If we can get either one to agree to this.

“How small are your hands?”

“What? They’re the best hands. They’re huge!”

This would also be great for:

  • When your kids are fighting
  • Political debates at the Shabbos table
  • Lawyers in court
  • Chavrusos, once corona is over

And think about it: Do you ever carry on yelling at your kid while crossing the street? Have you ever yelled at someone while helping them off a couch? Have you ever yelled at someone who’s lying in bed in the hospital? Have you ever yelled at the person next to you while dancing at a simcha? (Yes, but only because the music is so loud.) Have you ever fought with anyone while shaking his hand Good Shabbos? The most you do is that non-verbal argument where each of you silently tries to squeeze the other person’s hand while everyone else wonders why you’re both grimacing and taking so long.

In fact, I find it interesting that in Hebrew, the word we say while holding someone’s hand is “Shalom.”

Science. It gets us there eventually.

So is that why there’s so much fighting nowadays? Because no one can make up?

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com

 

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