Self-Adaptors & Other Types of Adaptors

Adaptors are the most difficult category of nonverbal behavior Opens in new window to describe; and it involves the most speculations. Basically, they are unintentional body movements that involuntarily occur as part of adaptive efforts to satisfy self or bodily needs, or to manage emotions, such as nervousness.

  • An adaptor is a body motion used by people to adapt or adjust to a communication process that is occurring. It may be a stress-induced reaction such as a person who bites his nails, or one who taps her foot or fingers, or uses another repetitive body motion during the conversation.

Other examples include head-scratching, fidgeting with self (self-touching) or with object (pencils, glasses, watch, etc.). Adaptors are not consciously controlled and have often been with the person for most of his or her life.

Categories of Adaptors

Scholars distinguish three types of adaptors: self-adaptors, alter-adaptors, and object-adaptors.

Within the remainder of this entry, we discuss each at length.

1.  Self-Adaptors

Self-adaptors are the sort of movements that involve self-touch which are learned and utilized through the management of a variety of problems or needs. Some self-adaptors are learned in order to facilitate or block sensory input which originates through hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting or touching. Some self-adaptors are learned for the proper performance of ingestive or excretive functions.

Self-adaptors have no intrinsic relationship to speech; but they may be triggered by, or related to, the motives or affects, which are being verbalized. An example of a self-adaptor seen in adult conversation would be the wiping of the lips with the tongue or, in particular, with the hand.

Self-adaptors are usually performed with little awareness, and no intention to communicate. The grooming self-adaptors may be the major exception, although people pretend that they do not know when they are grooming in public, particularly when they attend to body orifices; this may be a pretense to cover the behaviour rather than actual lack of awareness.

2.  The Alter-Directed Adaptors

The Alter-directed adaptors include movements which facilitate giving to or taking from another person; movements relevant to attacking or protecting oneself from attack; movements necessary to establishing affection and intimacy, or withdrawal and flight; movements relevant to establishing sexual contact, such as invitations, flirtations, and courtship.

As with the self-adaptors, alter-adaptors are not necessarily shown in a total or complete fashion when they occur during adult conversations, although they may be in less public settings or in more pressured or intimate conversations. Most alter-adaptors involve the use of hands, often in space, but sometimes in contact with the body.

Alter-adaptors which involve hand-in-space movements may be difficult to distinguish from illustrators Opens in new window, and actually may be completely redundant with the kinetographic illustrators if they actually illustrate in action what is being said verbally.

Hand movements which touch the body must be distinguished from self-adaptors, although the two may be contained in a single movement, the distinction being thus artificial in that instance; e.g., a protective movement which holds or conceals part of the body from attack, or a movement which stimulates part of the body, may at the same time draw attention and be an invitation for or rejection of contact with the other.

A fascinating example of an alter-adaptor was suggested by Washburn (1967), from his studies of baboon behaviour. He had noted that during adult threat behaviour, the baboon will often turn his head to the side; and this action was unusual in that unlike the other behaviours found during threat, it seemed to have functional value. A clue came from examining the situation when the baboon first learned to fight and attack.

3.  Object-Adaptor

Object-adaptors involve the use of some object or prop, e.g., a pencil, part of the clothing, matchbook, etc. If the object is used to accomplish an instrumental task, we do not consider the act an object-adaptor. If the object is held or moved without serving an instrumental goal, the act is classified as an object-adaptor.

For example, taking notes during a conversation is not an object-adaptor, but holding or playing with the pencil is. Doodling is intermediate, and we classify it as an object-adaptor. However, smoking is not an object-adaptor, but playing with the cigarette, when lit or unlit, or playing with matches or lighter are object-adaptors, and their meaning is more general—restlessness.

Some object-adaptors can have more specific meaning, depending on the action involved. For example, the prop can be used in an attack on the body, or to soothe or stroke part of the body.

The object-adaptors differ from the self – and alter-adaptors in that many are learned later in life. Object-adaptors may often be within awareness, which was not so for either self-adaptors or alter-adaptors, and some may be intended to communicate. Generally there are fewer social taboos about the performance of object-adaptors than self-adaptors, or even alter-adaptors.