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Self Adaptors, Alter Adaptors and Object Adaptors in Nonverbal Communication

Howard has had a longtime interest in psychology and human behavior and enjoys digging into the reasons why we do the things we do.

Adaptors are a form of nonverbal communication—a class of gestures and movements that help people deal with discomfort, such as stress, anxiety and any other unsettling thoughts. They literally help us adapt to the situation we're in or to how we're feeling.

They're distinct from the gestures we make during conversation to intentionally communicate something nonverbally or that complement our speech. These gestures are done unconsciously and are unrelated to the what we're saying. They serve to use up some of our excess energy and provide comfort.

These gestures are often of self-touching and also miscellaneous fidgeting. They can occur anywhere on the body, but are most often focused on the head and face.

While the term adaptor is often used to cover all the possible variations, they are sometimes divided into three groups that we'll consider:

  • Self adaptors
  • Alter adaptors
  • Object adaptors

There's some definite overlap among the categories, so these aren't firm distinctions.

Hands-on-the-face is an example of an adaptor that provides comfort from stress.

Hands-on-the-face is an example of an adaptor that provides comfort from stress.

What is a Self Adaptor

Self adaptors are the self-comforting gestures we make, for the most part, in private.

For example, scratching on the head or face satisfies an itch, but there's more. In private, we tend to linger more over a scratch, maybe finishing by rubbing the fingers over a wider area. This extracts the most comfort from the situation.

If we felt this same itch in public, our response would be more muted. We'd get the relief we need and then stop.

Self adaptors aren't limited to a physical trigger. They're commonly triggered by anxiety, albeit usually at a very low level.Some other examples:

  • Stroking the back of the head.
  • Touching or rubbing the face.
  • Touching or rubbing the arms or torso.
  • Stretching the legs.

There's no pressing physical reason for any of these movements. We're feeling some king of mental stress. We generally don't realize we need any comfort. The action happens unconsciously.

What is an Alter Adaptor?

Alter adaptors are made in response to another person. They're the same sort of gesture as the self adaptors. The difference is the need for comfort is being triggered by someone else. Some examples:

  • Someone enters our personal space so we cross our arms or put our hands on our arms. These are defensive and comforting positions.
  • While our boss criticizes our work, we wring or open and close our hands, take a half step back or to the side, or stretch a leg. These movements use a little of our nervous energy and offer a physical distraction.
  • Thinking that someone is looking at us, we scratch our face or pat our hair.

What is an Object Adaptor?

Object adaptors are the movements that involve something other than our own body—glasses, clothes or other accessories. These gestures can be triggered privately—by our own thoughts—or by someone else. Some examples are:

  • Putting glasses on and taking them off.
  • Pulling on our pants or shirt.
  • Running the fingers along a tie or a strap.
  • Adjusting a hat.
  • Playing with a pen or a ring.

What Are Adaptors in Nonverbal Communication?

What stands out about adaptors is their complete lack of meaningful content.

When done privately, it's obvious these gestures aren't communicating anything to anyone else. They're purely to make ourselves feel better.

When done in front of others, they still don't communicate anything important. They serve to drain off nervous energy, give physical comfort, or provide a mental distraction from unsettling thoughts.

So, Do Adaptors Communicate Anything?

Onlookers tend to view adaptors negatively. They give the impression of neurosis, anxiety, and other addled thoughts.

This is how adaptors are usually presented to us in movies and television. If a storyteller wants to characterize someone as nervous, jumpy, or otherwise mentally unsettled, they'll be a blur of activity. Running the hands through the hair, pushing on glasses, pulling the ear, light coughing into the hand, smoothing their clothes and so on.

This doesn't mean that we should assume a person's thinking is unclear because we notice these gestures, especially in moderation. After all, they're quite common. At the least, though, they tell us that someone isn't totally at ease.

Likewise, if we're prone to frequent use of adaptors, it's good to be aware of the possible effect these gestures could have on others. Bringing these usually unconscious actions to the forefront of our attention and making an effort to tamp them could improve how others perceive us.


Howard Allen (author) on May 01, 2019:

It means we're looking for some comfort, but it doesn't mean there's a major problem. Usually, we're reacting to a very mild stress or some physical discomfort, like being cold.

Hacicu Bogdan from Cluj-Napoca, Romania on May 01, 2019:

So if we find ourselves having this behaviour of adaptors, does it mean that something bothers us like stress or anxiety?