Human avoidance in pointing: a cultural universal?

Uncle_Sam_I_want_youEmmanuel Dupoux sends a question to our community, on behalf of a team of psychologists studying pointing. The team includes Emmanuel himself, Laurent Cleret de Lagavant, Charlotte Jacquemot and Anne-Catherine Bachoud-Levi.

Pointing is a communicative gesture that enables one to attract the attention of a conspecific on a particular object. Communicative pointing is observed in all human cultures and acquired by infants before language onset. Pointing can be selectively impaired in neuropsychological patients: in heteropopagnosia, patients are grossly impaired in pointing towards humans. Typically, heterotopagnosic patients show a humanity/communicative gradient effect: their pointing performance gradually decrease as the target becomes closer to a real communicative human being (schematic drawings of humans, photographs of a person, dolls, real persons pretending to be a doll and real persons). Interestingly, in a task that is not inherently social like grasping, these patients perform flawlessly on all target types.

This selective impairment of pointing, that gets worse in communicative situations where the target is human, might (we suspect) have a cultural counterpart. In the culture where we have been raised, it is, as they say, "rude to point" at another human. Anthropologists have documented in great richness a variety of taboos associated to pointing in general, but it is still unclear whether these taboos have something special to do with the action of pointing at someone. This is where we could benefit from the unique expertise of anthropologists.

This raises two broad questions for the cognition and culture community.



– Is human pointing avoidance uniform across cultures? Could anyone point to cross-cultural studies, or ask their informants about what are the pointing taboos in their cultures?



– Could it be that pointing avoidance is linked to the fact that in a communicative situation, the target of pointing is reduced to the status of an object, and it may be considered inappropriate or rude to reduce, even implicitly, humans to mere objects? Or is pointing avoidance linked to embarrassment or fear to being brought into the focus of attention?

What do ICCI anthropologists think of these issues? Feel free to comment!

Some references

Communicative pointing in infants: M. Tomasello, M. Carpenter, J. Call, T. Behne, H. Moll, Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Behav Brain Sci 28, 675 (Oct, 2005). (link)

Heteropoagnosia: J.-D. Degos, A.-C. Bachoud-Lévi, A.-M. Ergis, C. Pétrissans, P. Cesaro, Selective inability to point to extrapersonal targets after left posterior parietal lesions. Neurocase 3, 31 (1997).

O. Felician, M. Ceccaldi, M. Didic, C. Thinus-Blanc, M. Poncet, Pointing to body parts: a double dissociation study. Neuropsychologia 41, 1307 (2003).

L. Cleret de Langavant, I. Trinkler, P. Cesaro, A. C. Bachoud-Levi, Heterotopagnosia: When I point at parts of your body. Neuropsychologia 47, 1745 (Jun, 2009). (link)


  • comment-avatar
    Hugo Mercier 16 February 2011 (17:38)

    Thank you for this very intriguing question. Maybe there’s a relation with staring? It seems that it’s also impolite to stare at people. And the two are often associated: we tend to look at where we point. As (I think, but I may be be wrong or it may be apocryphal) Eibl-Eibesfeldt said, when two animals look each other in the eye for more than a few seconds, they are going to fight or f… engage in sexual intercourse. That may explain why staring is rude: if it’s not the second option (which would be rude in a public context anyway) it’s an invitation to confrontation. Maybe that’s what in turns makes pointing at someone rude as well. (But we still don’t know how universal either of these things are… my bet would be that it’s quite common).

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    Hugo Viciana 18 February 2011 (05:28)

    My intuitions go along with those of the other Hugo. I think pointing at someone or being pointed is a potential releaser of cortisol. It is possibly a vestigial part of primate hierarchical behavior in which being looked at fixedly is a sign of threat and menace. In the human case, it possibly involves also fear of social evaluation. Incidentally I remember Rita Astuti enumerated some of the taboos of the Vezo of Madagascar and these included “Do not point at whales”. She reports that this a taboo that is supposed to be respected by all the Vezo (not only by the women or specific families).

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    Rita Astuti 20 February 2011 (22:45)

    Yes indeed, pointing at whales is faly (taboo) for the Vezo of Madagascar. When out at sea, if people happen to encounter a migrating whale, they are not allowed to point at it and make a fuss about its presence. This is because whales, being so large and majestic, deserve people’s respect. If one needs to make one’s companions aware of the whale’s presence, one is allowed to point with one’s index finger fully bent. This is also what one does if one needs to point at people who, like whales, are due one’s respect (e.g., an elder). I’m not absolutely sure, but I think that a bent finger must also be used when pointing at objects that deserve respect, including tombs, “sacred” trees, “sacred” stones, etc. In fact, in every day interactions, people – most especially women – do not point with the index finger at all, but use their lips, extended and twisted towards the desired target, whether person, animal, object or location (a distinctive sound accompanies the pursing and twisting of the lips). Anyway, I’m not sure that this really helps addressing your hypothesis that pointing is avoided because it turns people into objects. Clearly pointing is deemed disrespectful, but the fact that it is improper to point at an elder as it is to point at a whale, a tomb and a stone suggests that in this case at least the problem with pointing lies elsewhere. Let me put it this way: if whales had fingers I’m sure it would be OK for them to point at the dinky little canoes floating on the surface of the sea, and they wouldn’t even need to bend their finger!

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    Dan Sperber 21 February 2011 (01:00)

    Here is a piece of not only anecdotal but also quite indirect evidence on cross-cultural attitudes towards pointing at a person, taken from the story of Wakdjunkaga, the Winnebago mythological trickster as told by Paul Radin: [quote]Once as Wakdjunkaga was going toward a creek, he saw a man standing on the other side, dressed in a black suit and pointing his finger at him. He spoke to the man but the latter would not answer. Then he spoke again and again but without receiving any reply. Finally he got angry and said: “See here! I can do that too.” So he put on a black coat and pointed his finger across the creek. Thus both of them stood all day. Toward evening, when he looked around again, he noticed that the man across the creek who had been pointing at him was really a tree stump. “Oh my! What have I been doing all this time? Why did I not look before I began? No wonder the people call me the Foolish-One!” (In Paul Radin, [i]The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology[/i] 1956)[/quote] The relevance, if any, is that Wakdjunkaga gets upset at the person he believes he sees not answering him, but not at his pointing, so pointing at a person is probably not that bad among the Winnebago.

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    Natalia Buitron-Arias 27 February 2011 (18:43)

    This is an interesting question. I have noticed that in all the places where I have lived (North and South America, Southern and Northern Europe) pointing is deemed rude. Only while living in Ecuador, however, I received an articulated explanation for why this is the case. Although I have never come across the same explanation in the South American ethnographic literature, I think the anecdote is worth recalling. While sitting in the courtyard of a house with a group of women and their children, a mother reproached a little girl for pointing at a passing neighbour. Having asked her for the reasoning behind this prohibition, the woman offered the following explanation: [i]When children point at someone, they attract too much attention from this person. The person will then look back at the child and when children receive strong looks from people who feel envious or sad, chances are they will get sick.[/i] The mother’s intricate justification prompted me to ask many more questions. I asked the woman what she meant by ‘strong look’, why it would cause the child to get sick and why only children, not adults, get sick. To my first two questions the annoyed mother answered ‘[i]Haven’t you heard of evil eye?[/i]’ Of course I knew what evil eye was. In Ecuador people say that evil eye is an illness caused by the negative energy emanating from people’s eyes. While it is thought to lie beyond the agent’s control, negative energy is typically connected to greed, envy and jealousy. So if a child gets sick, it is probably because people have ‘thought, or felt, things’ and stared at the child with negative thoughts in mind. Like pointing, staring is an intentional act. However, the problem, as I understood it from the woman’s explanation, is not that the person would feel judged or embarrassed by being pointed at. Instead, the real threat would be for the child, whose innocent gesture invokes pre-existing negative emotions in the observer. The child’s gesture and the observer’s response are conceived of as non-equivalent and thus dangerous for the child. Interestingly, to the question as to why only children get sick, the woman answered that children are weaker and more vulnerable. I suspect that children’s alleged vulnerability is related to the fact that they are still learning that they should not point at people. This anecdote suggests that the problem may not just lie in turning people into objects, or in bringing them into the focus of attention. Rather the fear is that the person who points at others will become the focus of attention by attracting undue interest from their minds.

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    Michael Berthin 3 March 2011 (12:44)

    In Japan also it is rude, and I never received much of an explanation of why except that it is rude. Nor did I really think about it to be honest, though reflecting on it I don’t remember much pointing at all in genera, except towards yourself, which Japanese do by pointing at their own nose instead of at their chest. But the issue of status that Rita mentioned seems to ring true to me, in that parents (if they are angry) may point at their children when scolding them. But a subordinate pointing at their boss, in the context of a company, would seem to be a huge transgression of etiquette. That’s very impressionistic though.

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    Olivier Le Guen 18 March 2011 (03:00)

    I work with Yucatec Maya speakers in Quintana Roo (Mexico) and there pointing to people is unproblematic. I don’t think the potential reasons you mentioned are involved. Two reasons are to be accounted, as far as I can tell: (1) conception of space and place/person reference and (2) linguistic features of the pronominal system in Yucatec Maya. There is a term for pointing in Maya túuch’ub from the verb tuch’ ‘raise over (one’s hand).’ (1) Conception of space: Yucatec Maya use preferentially a geocentric frame of reference (Levinson 2003, Le Guen, in press). This means that they do not encode spatial relationship in terms of their point of view on a scene (saying for instance, the cup is to the left of the bottle) but instead in terms of extrinsic features of the environment (e.g. the cup is to the east from the bottle). This type of strategy has a consequence in term of pointing that is that people tend to point accurately to actual places or referents. Pointing accurately in term of angular information from one’s body is not however part of the geocentric system, only an epiphenomenon. That is, geocentric speakers tend to not use abstract pointing (i.e. pointing in the air to refer to abstract places or to past or future time) (McNeill et al. 1993). No matter the distance of the target (if it is close and directly visible or several kilometers away), the speaker is always performing her pointing accurately with respect to the position of the target. During my fieldwork experience in the village, I often have been asked to point to my home place (France). My Maya interlocutors explicitly wanted to know the correct orientation of France for future conversation; in order to been able to point to it in case they are mentioning this place and, inversely, to understand a potential gestural reference to this target produced by me. Since people point accurately to place and that they also use place reference as person reference (Hanks 2007) it is quite common to metonymically point to people’s place to refer to them. From there, pointing to actual people is not a big jump communicatively. But this is not the all story. (2) Pronoun system in Yucatec Maya is not terribly precise for the first person. The third person, le’ti’, in absence of gender in the language and plural being optional can mean in natural interactions ‘him, her, it’ sometimes the same in plural. In multiparty conversation or when people make reference to various non-present or present persons, the use of the pronoun is sometimes not enough to disambiguate whom is the actual addressed or is the referent. Obviously names and nicknames can be used, but, as you know, second or third mentions are often done with anaphors (i.e. pronouns) in natural conversation. (3) There is no cultural rule against pointing at people in general. Here is an example of a woman pointing to me (OLG) with a knife while asking a question. Note that in this case the referent is unambiguous: second person is used with visual orientation to me. [img] wayáa yanech ka’ach diya beintisiinkoak te’ fyeestaka’? ‘Were you there on the 25th (during) the holydays?’ Now, I’m not convinced your question is asked in the most efficient way. Cross cultural investigation centered on a too focused theme defined beforehand often resulted to be unproductive and can lead to some confusion in the description of the phenomenon. I would like to discuss the formulation of your questions (which are of most interest). [i]Is human pointing avoidance uniform across cultures? Could anyone point to cross-cultural studies, or ask their informants about what are the pointing taboos in their cultures?[/i] Asking people is and should be ONLY one part of the study. Metarepresentation of behavior is usually not accurate with the actual facts. Numerous studies in development psychology have shown that with parental representation (ethnotheory) of their children’s behaviour or their own. For the issue at stake, look at Kita’s studies on pointing taboo in Ghana (Kita and Essegbey, 2001). Even if they show that there is an actual metarepresentation: “pointing with the left hand is not appropriate” people nevertheless perform such left-hand pointing. Pointing, as you remind us, is a communicative act and should be studied as such. This means that your investigation tools should be adequate (i.e. not only interviews) but video recording of people’s actual behavior. Conversational Analysis has developed some specific and fine grained way of looking at natural interactions (see Enfield et al. 2007a on how to build a corpus). In other words asking people around will not be enough and may not give you any intuition about what is going on in the community of study. Using actual recording of interactions will provide you with a data base that can be used to count the number of pointing occurrences and would also allow distinguishing the various kind of existing pointing (see Enfield et al. 2007b on form and meaning of pointing to places). -[i] Could it be that pointing avoidance is linked to the fact that in a communicative situation, the target of pointing is reduced to the status of an object, and it may be considered inappropriate or rude to reduce, even implicitly, humans to mere objects? Or is pointing avoidance linked to embarrassment or fear to being brought into the focus of attention? [/i] Once again, you should be careful not to confound taboo and appropriateness. Pointing to people is not taboo in the western world. Imagine a group of investment bankers getting in a bar or being at their annual formal meeting. One of the participants stands up and says: “We just signed a huge contract and made a lot of money thanks to ‘this guy’ [done with a pointing to the person in question]”. In this case, you don’t want to say that the person is reduced to an object. Indeed the person is brought to attention, but he or she cannot do anything about it. You cannot control other people’s behavior (actually you can, during socialization, but if this occurs in the adulthood and it is not sanctioned, it is therefore a potential and usable communicative act, as in our investments banker’ case). Probably no one would think among the participants that this gesture is rude. Now, children’s pointing to strange people in the street is not of the same type. What differentiate these two has not to do with taboo but more with appropriateness, the same applies in addressing strangers in the street: if it is tolerable in the USA it is much more problematic in Paris (France). Tia and Michel actually addressed this issue in their examples. Once again, data from actual interaction may be the key to evaluate the content and describe the use of pointing to person. I think you raised a very interesting and important topic that should be investigated with great care, reason why I allow myself to contribute to the discussion. Hope to see where you go with this theme. Best regards, Olivier I would recommend you have a look at: Wilkins, D., Kita, S., & Enfield, N. J. (2007). ‘Ethnography of pointing’ – field worker’s guide. In A. Majid (Ed.), Field Manual Volume 10 (pp. 89-95). Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Available at: Kita, S. (2009). Cross-cultural variation of speech-accompanying gesture: A review. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24(2), 145-167. References: Enfield, N. J., Levinson, S. C., De Ruiter, J. P., & Stivers, T. (2007a). Building a corpus of multimodal interaction in your field site. In A. Majid (Ed.), Field Manual Volume 10 (pp. 96-99). Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics Enfield, N. J., Kita, S., & De Ruiter, J. P. (2007b). Primary and secondary pragmatic functions of pointing gestures. Journal of Pragmatics, 39(10), 1722-1741. Hanks, W. F. (2007). Person reference in Yucatec Maya conversation. In N. J. Enfield & T. Stivers (Eds.), Person Reference in Interaction, Language Culture and Cognition (pp. 149-171). Cambridge University Press. Kita, S., & Essegbey, J. (2001). Pointing left in Ghana: How a taboo on the use of the left hand influences gestural practice. Gesture, 1(1), 73-95. Levinson, S. C. (2003). Space in language and cognition : explorations in cognitive diversity. Language, culture and cognition ; 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Le Guen, O. (in press). Handling Frames of Reference: the co-dependence of speech and gesture in spatial cognition among the Yucatec Mayas. Cognitive Science. McNeill, D., Cassell, J., & Levy, E. T. (1993). Abstract deixis. Semiotica, 95(1-2), 5-20.

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    Fernando Carvalho 23 March 2011 (04:01)

    I think this is the place to share something that has always puzzled me. While doing fieldwork or simply getting along with different native south american peoples (I had closer and lengthier contact with the Tikuna people of the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon)I noticed the [b]widespread use of lower lip pointing[/b], almost to the exclusion of finger pointing. I noticed this in the course of unrelated fieldwork on linguistic issues, so that I didn’t carry any further investigation on this topic which remained then as some sort of fieldwork nicety we like to share. Other researchers on south american languages shared the same puzzlement over this behavioral trait with me, though. During fieldwork I hypothesized that this could be some sort of avoidance pointing technique used to avoid calling the attention of third parties, specially when these are the subject of gossiping taking place between the pointer and the individual(s) listening to the gossip. I’m sure, however, that the same low-lip pointing technique was employed several times by the indians when showing me, for example, a path, the position of an object or general spatial location. . There’s a paper by La Barre (from American Anthropologist, I guess) on the Uru indians of the Desaguadero river in Peru/Bolivia, where he mentions that lower-lip pointing is a general feature of American indians. . I hope it has been of some help. Sorry for the sloppy references but I’m unable now to check the La Barre paper for details. . Kind regards