The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


The good knight-errant, even though he may behold ten giants with heads that not merely touch but rise above the clouds; and even though each of these giants may have two tallest towers for legs while his arms resemble the masts of huge and powerful ships; even though each may have eyes that are like great mill wheels and that glow more brightly than any glass furnace--in spite of all this, he is not to be in the least frightened but with highborn mien and intrepid heart is to give them battle and if possible vanquish and destroy them in a moment's time. --Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605:545)

Size displayGestures and messaging features which appear massive, magnified, and powerful--and often dangerous or imminently threatening to the mind.

Usage: The looming phenomenon gives innate meaning to nonverbal cues of size (see, e.g., ANTIGRAVITY SIGNBROADSIDE DISPLAY, and HIGH-STAND DISPLAY; cf. CROUCH). Impressive mountains, large stones, and tall trees frequently are viewed with wonder and may be considered as sacred objects.

Evolution. "Looming, on the other hand, is more recent in evolution than the tactile crouch, and it is at base a visual response. Without eyes to see it the loom literally would make no sense. But to those with eyes, the movements and postures of expansion evoke strong, automatic reactions. Big is innately threatening to the vertebrate eye itself" (Givens 1986:163).

Literature. "It was a body capable of enormous leverage--a cruel body" (F. Scott Fitzgerald [of Tom Buchanan], The Great Gatsby).
Psychology. Our aversion to large animals or objects approaching rapidly may be innate (Thorndike 1940).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. A steady increase in the size of a shadow projected on a screen produced avoidance movements in fiddler crabs, frogs, chicks, turtles, and human babies (Russell 1979). 2. "Absolute size--physical bulk itself--is a key biological variable in social status and in relations of dominance and submission" (Givens 1986:147). 3. "Egyptian pyramids, for example, give iconic testimony to a pharaoh's superior status; while the Japanese bow (from the waist) bespeaks humility through feigned shortness" (Givens 1986:146).

Neuro-notes. Nonverbal "big" threatens paleocircuits in the visual system, perhaps even within the eye itself. Movements and postures of expansion evoke a strong, automatic reaction known as the looming response, seen in birds only three hours after hatching, and in puppies at two weeks of age. At 14 days, babies will avoid a rapidly dilating shape projected to "loom" on a screen--as if they already knew the danger portended by large, moving objects.


Photo of Hotel del Coronado (San Diego, California) towering over our granddaughter, Olivia Rae Givens, by Doreen K. Givens (Givens family on left; copyright 2007)