In "A Case of Identity" Sherlock Holmes scolds Watson: "I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace." Holmes, as usual, was right on the money. In the business world, seemingly trifling details such as the condition of one's thumbnail can have major meanings.

I learned about thumbnails from research I managed for Unilever on "The Language of Hands." I knew that human hands had figured prominently in painting and sculpture, from Ice-Age cave art to masterpieces by Michelangelo and Rodin, but I'd not realized how critical their messages could be in the boardroom. As colleagues discuss business face-to-face, they unconsciously monitor hands with a fine, albeit unconscious, eye.

What jumped out at me from the Unilever study was just how observant we are of each other's hands and their emotional signals. Like artists, we're acutely aware that wrists, palms, and digits have something important to say. Unlike artists, our own observations are often untutored and are vaguely outside of our conscious awareness. We get a feeling from a hand gesture, but can't easily put our feelings into words. Unlike Michelangelo, who studied human anatomy, most of us can't put a finger on the precise hand shape or position that made us notice a mood shift had taken place. There's an intellectual disconnect between the gesture and the feeling.

To learn how ordinary people who are not artists decipher hands, my research team showed 12 high-resolution photographs of hand shapes and gestures to 100 subjects in the greater Los Angeles, Kansas City (Missouri), Chicago, and Boston metropolitan areas. Photos ranged from the manicured hands of an education administrator to the rough-hewn hands of a working electrician. We asked, "What do these hands ‘say' to you?" "What physical traits do you notice?" "What features do you like or dislike?" "Why?" "What hand would you least like to shake?" "Why?" And finally, "What do you like best about your own hands?" "Why?" Our nonrandom sample included 47 percent men and 53 percent women, aged 18 to 66 (mean age = 37), whose occupations ranged from physician to donut cook.

We were amazed by the quality and quantity of the verbal responses. Our subjects noticed a lot and had more than a little to say about hands, their shapes, size, condition, and gestures. Without any prompting from my team of trained field anthropologists, respondents volunteered a total of 4,025 descriptors (words and phrases) to describe the 12 hand photos.

What did we learn about thumbnails and hands from the Unilever study? At a business meeting, the more unattractive a hand the less likely a colleague will be to notice its gestures. In the study, as a hand's negative appearance rating increased, the attention paid to its gestures and shapes decreased. Unsightly features competed for visual attention and simply got in the gesture's-and thus in the gesturer's-way. Participants were less able to read, interpret, and decode gestures made by the physically distressed hands. These were hands, again in the observers' own words, which showed "lines," "scars," "spots," "calluses," "dirt," "roughness," "dryness," "stains," "dry cuticles," and "ragged nails."

Conversely, the more attractive a hand, the more likely a viewer was to notice and decode its signals. In the Language of Hands study, we found that as a hand's positive appearance rating increased, attention paid to its shape and gestures also increased. In short, participants were better able to see and decipher gestures produced by physically pleasant hands. Attractive hands were described as "clean," "groomed," "manicured," "cared for," "strong," "not dry," and "smooth."

The Language of Hands findings were shared at a press conference on the rooftop garden of the Library Hotel in New York City. "Working with the Center for Nonverbal Studies," the private research organization I founded in 1997 in Spokane, Washington, "we better understand how people feel about their hands and the hands around them," said Unilever's brand manager, Pablo Gazzerra.

Research from the University of Chicago shows that speaking gestures aid in verbal memory and enhance cognitive thought. Nonverbal hand cues thus augment the persuasive power of vocal words. They're key players in the silent language of business meetings, and your hands-especially your prominently visible thumbnails-should be groomed for the parts they'll play above the boardroom table.

About the Author

David Givens
David B. Givens, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, WA, and the author of Your Body at Work: Sight-reading the Body Language of Business,Bosses, and Boardrooms.

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