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Body Language of the Hands

What the hands say is often louder than words.

Key points

  • The human brain is hard-wired to engage the hands to accurately communicate one's emotions, thoughts, and sentiments.
  • Those who hide their hands while speaking are perceived as less open and honest.
  • People often "steeple" their hands to express confidence, and will rub their hands together when feeling stress.

“Among all species, our human hands are unique—not only in what they can accomplish but also in how they communicate. Human hands can paint the Sistine Chapel, pluck a guitar, maneuver surgical instruments, chisel a David, forge steel, and write poetry. They can grasp, scratch, poke, punch, feel, sense, evaluate, hold and mold the world around us. Our hands are extremely expressive; they can sign for the deaf, help tell a story, or reveal our innermost thoughts.” (What Every Body Is Saying)

No other species has appendages with such a remarkable range of capabilities. And yet if you asked most people about the nonverbals (body language) of the hands, they would be hard-pressed to tell you all the things the hands reveal.

Despite the acquisition of spoken language over millions of years of human evolution, our brains are still hard-wired to engage our hands in accurately communicating our emotions, thoughts, and sentiments (The Dictionary of Body Language). Therefore, whether people are speaking or not, hand gestures merit our attention as a rich source of nonverbal behavior to help us understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

It is interesting that our brain gives a disproportionate amount of attention to the fingers and hands compared to the rest of the body. This could be in part because our first touch is with our hands and we seek the hands of our parents for safety or it is because the human hand can hold a weapon. Whatever the reason, we tend to focus on the hands and are mesmerized by them. Hitler used them to his advantage, as do magicians, orchestra conductors, and surgeons.

Our human need to see hands is so important you can try a simple experiment. Without revealing your intentions, hide your hands during a conversation, for the complete duration of the conversation. At the end of the conversation, ask the participants what they thought and what they felt as you conversed with them. You will find that people will sense something is wrong. In my work with mock juries, we found that attorneys, or for that matter witnesses, that hide their hands are perceived as less open and less honest by the jurors.

Because the hands can reveal so much, I decided to write in my new book, Louder Than Words, about the kinds of information we can glean from the hands and what others may interpret. Here are a few of the comments excerpted from the book:

  • How we touch others is determined by how we feel about them. Full touch with the palm of the hand is warm and affectionate while touching with the fingertips betrays less affection.
  • When we are comfortable and contented blood flows into the hands, making them warm and pliable. Stress makes our hands feel colder and more rigid.
  • You may not have noticed, but when you feel strong and confident, the space between your fingers grows, making your hands more territorial. When you feel insecure, that space disappears—in fact, you may find yourself tucking your thumbs under your fingers when under a lot of stress.
  • When you feel confident, your thumbs will rise more often as you speak, especially if your fingers are intertwined in front of you.
  • You will steeple your fingers (fingertips together like a church steeple) more often when confident but it will vanish the moment you lack confidence or have insecurities.
  • When you are stressed, there will be more rubbing of the hands together (self-massaging or “pacifying”) which will increase in frequency and force commensurate with the stress.
  • When things are really stressful, you will rub your hands together with fingers stretched out and interlaced (Teepee Hands). A behavior we reserve for when things are really bad.
  • The first time we touch others is usually with a handshake. It may seem trivial, but get it wrong and it could leave a lasting negative impression. Get it right and you score emotional points.
  • No one likes an aggressive handshake and vise-like grips are not appreciated.
  • Handshakes should mirror the other person’s handshake, with good eye contact.
  • Remember in some cultures, a handshake is a secondary greeting gesture. A hug or an abrazo, even a kiss, may be more in order.
  • Hands also indicate how much we care for ourselves and how we view social convention.

These are just a few of the messages we derive from the hands. The hands really are exquisite transmitters of our emotions and thoughts, even our well-being; we can’t afford to ignore them.

Copyright © 2010 Joe Navarro.

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