Veerle Wilms
Veerle Wilms

How to have a conversation in a noisy café?

Cosy chatter, merry laughter, music and clinking glasses: cafés are rarely silent. Despite all this background noise, people still often manage to order a drink and understand all the tall tales told by their friends. Speech alone is not enough here, but speech combined with recognisable gestures works wonders.

Research already showed that using gestures can help make yourself understood in noisy environments. These are so-called iconic gestures that have meaning and where the gesture indicates what you are talking about. Psycholinguist Veerle Wilms tested the extent to which gestures actually help with understanding words and sentences while conversations are taking place in the background. She also wanted to know if it makes a difference whether the conversation heard in the background is in your mother tongue (Dutch) or a foreign language (French).

Wilms recorded 180 videos in which an actress says a short sentence in Dutch, such as “He is ready to pray”, or “She likes to swim.” “The last word was always a verb,” says Wilms. “Sometimes the actress made an iconic gesture to accompany this word and sometimes not. The Dutch experiment participants saw various videos with and without gestures. In the background, you could hear people speaking in Dutch or French, or nothing at all.”

Say it with your hands

“The participants indeed understood the words better when they were combined with a gesture than when no gesture was shown,” says Wilms. “Furthermore, participants found it easier to understand words when the background conversations were in French as opposed to when they were in Dutch.” The reason being that participants were familiar with the Dutch language, and the Dutch sentences and the Dutch background sound were very similar. This is not the case with Dutch phrases and French background noise.

This knowledge can be useful in lots of situations, such as cafés, restaurants, shops, or the market. “Both speakers and listeners can benefit from this: speakers by gesticulating and listeners by paying attention to their interlocutor’s hands, particularly where conversations taking place in the background are in your mother tongue.”

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