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The Ring Gesture: How Politicians Make a Point Gesturally

  • Teaser zum Blogbeitrag EN: In political communication, the ring gesture is one of the most widespread and oldest hand movements we know. It has been documented in European culture for about 2500 years
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What is the ring gesture?

The ring gesture shows a specific hand shape where the thumb and index finger meet at the fingertips to form a (more or less) round shape—a ring. Sometimes it is also performed with the middle finger touching the thumb. The position of the remaining fingers can vary: they are either spread apart or bent.

Symbolism and use of the ring gesture

The ring gesture, often referred to as the "precision grip," is a fascinating manifestation of conventionalized body language used diversely in political and social contexts. Its form-meaning relationships are stable, and it can carry different connotations in various cultures.

While the gesture is recognized as a sign for "everything is okay" in some Northern European countries, it can be interpreted as a serious insult in other parts, such as Southern Europe. This shows how cultural differences affect the perception and interpretation of gestures.

In the political arena, the ring gesture is often used to symbolize precision and clarity in argumentation. The gesture is frequently moved up and down. The more emphatically an argument is made, the more often the gesture is repeated from top to bottom.

Example - Obama

Interestingly, Michael Lempert observed a significant change in Barack Obama's behavior during the first presidential debate. Obama staged himself not only verbally but also gesturally as a precise speaker. The ring gesture, referred to by Lempert as the "precision grip," served as a semiotic resource for Obama to not only make a precise point but also to present himself as "being sharp."


The ring gesture shows how deeply gestures are rooted in human communication and how they can transcend cultural and temporal boundaries. It serves as a fascinating example of how gestures are used in the political arena and beyond to shape discourses and influence debates. It is also an example of how, in certain communication contexts like debates, gestures with pragmatic functions are used more frequently than descriptive gestures.


About the ring gesture in general:

Müller, C., Ring-gestures across cultures and times: Dimensions of variation, in Body - Language - Communication. An International Handbook on Multimodality in Human Interaction., C. Cornelia Müller, A., Fricke, E., Ladewig, S. H., McNeill, D., Bressem, J., Editor. 2014, De Gruyter Mouton: Berlin/Boston. p. 1511-1522.

About the ring gesture in German:

Neumann, R., The conventionalization of the ring gesture in German discourse, in The semantics and pragmatics of everyday gestures, C. Müller and R. Posner, Editors. 2004, Weidler: Berlin. p. 217-223.

About the ring gesture in Barack Obama:

Lempert, M., Barack Obama, being sharp: Indexical order in the pragmatics of precision-grip gesture. Gesture, 2011. 11(3): p. 241-270.

gesture, ring gesture, gesture in politics, pragmatic gesture, recurrent gesture

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What functions do gestures actually fulfil?

  • Teaser zum Blogbeitrag EN: Gestures are communicative movements of the body and include movements of the hands and arms, the head and even the eyes. Gestures are produced spontaneously and ad-hoc at the moment of speaking. They can be "freely invented" or already established and therefore conventionalised. Examples of the latter are so-called emblems, such as the upwardly stretched thumb or the victory gesture, but also recurrent gestures such as the gesture of holding away or the hand pointing upwards. Translated with (free version)
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Gestures can represent objects, actions, spatial relationships or abstract concepts. They create references to the extra-linguistic reality and are thus able to shape parts of the propositional content of multimodal utterances. This function is particularly prevalent in spontaneously created gestures that imitate the characteristics of the objects or actions depicted or represent spatial relationships and proportions. Spontaneously created gestures, such as the representation of an action, the tracing of a shape or spatial indications, form the majority of the gestures we use every day.


The expressive function of gestures refers to the physical expression of the speaker's emotions, feelings and attitudes. These are not only shown in the form of the gesture, such as a clenched fist, but especially in the way in which the gesture is performed, for example in an energetic, powerful movement.


Gestures can fulfil an appellative function by addressing the interlocutor directly and demanding a reaction or action. This function manifests itself in gestures that function at an interactional level and often establish a reference to the addressee. Gestures with an appellative function can be used, among other things, to mark parts of an utterance and make them relevant for the addressee (discursive function). This is often found in gestures that emphasise parts of an utterance by moving up and down. However, gestures can also perform a communicative action themselves (performative function), for example when the open hand is used to request an answer or to assign someone a place. They thus interact with speech on a pragmatic level

The complexity of gestures is revealed in their ability to fulfil several of these functions simultaneously, whereby one of the functions usually dominates. This multifunctionality, combined with the close connection between gesture and speech, emphasises the complexity of human communication and the central role that gestures play in it.

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An introduction to language and gesture can be found in:

Ladewig, Silva H. (2018). Gestures as part of language - Modern gesture research. In: Moike Jessen, Johan Bloomberg & Jörg Roche (eds.), Cognitive Linguistics. (Compendium DaF/DaZ, Vol. 2) Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 290-300.

Ladewig, Silva H. (2018) Gestures and their meaning. In: Moike Jessen, Johan Bloomberg & Jörg Roche (eds.), Cognitive Linguistics. (Compendium DaF/DaZ, Vol. 2) Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 300-31

For the three functions mentioned, see:

Müller, C. (2013), Gestures as a medium of expression: The linguistic potential of gestures. In: C. Müller, A. Cienki, E. Fricke, S. H. Ladewig, D. McNeill & S. Teßendorf (eds.) Body - Language - Communication: An International Handbook on Multimodality in Human Interaction. Berlin, Boston: Mouton de Gruyter, 202-217.

Müller, C., Ladewig, S. H. & Bressem, J. (2013), Gesture and speech from a linguistic point of view. In: C. Müller, A. Cienki, E. Fricke, S. H. Ladewig, D. McNeill & S. Teßendorf (eds.) Body - Language - Communication. An International Handbook on Multimodality in Human Interaction. (Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 38.1.). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 55-81.

Müller, C. (1998), Redebegleitende Geste: Kulturgeschichte, Theorie, Sprachvergleich. Berlin: Arno Spitz.

On the upward-facing flat hand, see:

Cooperrider, K., Abner, N.& Goldin-Meadow, S. (2018). The Palm-Up Puzzle: Meanings and Origins of a Widespread Form in Gesture and Sign, Frontiers in Communication, 3(23). DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2018.00023

Kendon, A. (2004), Gesture. Visible action as utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Müller, C. (2004), Forms and uses of the Palm Up Open Hand. A case of a gesture family? In: C. Müller & R. Posner (eds.) Semantics and Pragmatics of everyday gestures Berlin: Weidler, 234-256.

On the gesture of holding away see:

Bressem, J. & Wegener, C. (2021). Handling talk: A cross-linguistic perspective on discursive functions of gestures in German and Savosavo, Gesture, 20(2), 219-253. **

Bressem, J., Stein, N. & Wegener, C. (2015). Structuring and highlighting speech-Discursive functions of holding away gestures in Savosavo, G. Ferré et M. Tutton (ed.) Proceedings of GESPIN, 4, 49-54.


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Dr. Silva Ladewig

Seminar für Deutsche Philologie
Käte-Hamburger-Weg 3
D-37073 Göttingen

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