What Do Your Hands Reveal About You?

Theories of why men and women tend to use different gestures.

Posted Apr 25, 2015

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Gestures are highly culturally and gender variable. A single behavior can have multiple meanings in different culture—and can sometimes get us in trouble. For instance, the ring gesture (the circle created by the thumb touching the index finger) with which Americans convey “Okay,” means, “You are a zero,” in France and Belgium. In Japan, the same motion denotes “money,” but in parts of southern Italy, it stands for “asshole.” And in Greece and Turkey the same gesture can be read as a sexual invitation.

Signs of contempt (giving someone "the finger” or signaling “up yours”) are another area ripe for miscommunication, as they too vary from culture to culture. For instance, male Pitta-Pitta aborigines of Australia bite their beards to indicate their displeasure, while the females insult others by thrusting their abdomens forward and vibrating their thighs. Making a V over the nose with the forefinger and middle finger as the palm faces inward toward the face is considered obscene in such disparate countries as Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

President Nixon committed a major faux pas in Brazil when he deplaned with hands upraised in the American peace emblem—fingers held in a V. Unfortunately, for Brazilians this is the equivalent of flipping someone "the bird.” Nixon had not done his nonverbal homework.

According to Roger Axtell, author of Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, in Belgium, the country where my mother and I were born, “If a woman wishes to shake hands, she will extend hers first.” Also, “Standing with your hands in your pockets while conversing is considered bad manners, and snapping your fingers when others are present is also frowned upon.” I remember my mother constantly insisting that my hands be on the table, not in my lap, at the dinner table. In Belgium, it seemed, they need to see your hands.

Children may use gestures such as thumbing a nose or putting their thumbs by their ears while sticking out their tongues. This is the extent of many children's "obscene" gesture repertoire. However, by adolescence, a sex difference emerges: In middle school, boys will begin to employ “the finger” and the “up yours” gesture using the arm in an upward motion. Preteen girls, however, rarely engage in such behaviors, which appear to violate a feminine prescription. At this age, children are already learning that certain gestures are acceptable for one gender but not the other.

Gendered Gestures

A number of frequently used gestures either undermine or expand one’s credibility and power. As communication professors Virginia Richmond and James McCroskey explain:

“Males tend to use more dominant-type gestures and movement when communicating with females, as compared to their female partners. Similarly, as compared to their male partners, females tend to use more submissive-type gestures…”

What are "dominant" and "submissive-type" gestures? Men are more apt to be expansive and powerful in their hand movements. We know for, example, that anger is an emotion men are socially permitted to display publicly. A clenched fist will communicate tension, irritation, and anger. When my father would lose his patience with us, if his words were combined with a clenched fist, we knew he meant business. And pounding one’s fist into one’s palm is an especially effective show of power.

Here is another example:

Adaptors are gestures learned in childhood (often involving self-touching) as a form of self-soothing—pulling on an ear, rubbing one's nose, tapping on a leg, twisting fingers, chipping off nail polish, twirling hair, or even shaking a leg. We also engage in adaptors with objects, if we adjust clothing or play with jewelry, a pencil, or pocket change.

Adaptors are distracting. Imagine "Carmen," sitting at a board meeting, twisting her rings and shaking her leg. Some people will pay more attention to Carmen's adaptors than to her words, because her activity not only draws their gaze but also conveys anxiety. We also know that people who engage in self-adaptors (playing with hair; rubbing, squeezing, or wringing hands; cracking knuckles; picking at cuticles; touching or adjusting clothing; picking or pinching flesh of an arm or hand) are generally perceived as less persuasive—the behaviors erode their credibility.

Men typically do not want to convey that they are out of control because this is synonymous with losing power. Consequently men tend to adaptors less frequently as women do. Studies have revealed that women tend to put their hands in their laps or on their hips, tap their hands on the table or on their leg and "pull in" their gestures as if their elbows were attached to their waists.

But women also incorporate more bonding gestures. These are “openness” behaviors such as hands and arms outstretched toward another person as if to say, “I invite you to participate.” These gestures can facilitate interaction and invite a listener to participate. And women are more expressive than men, incorporating more facial expressions, and appearing equally animated in their use of gestures, especially when excited about something.

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As communication professor Judy Pearson says:

“The differences between the use of gestures by women and men are so evident that masculinity and femininity may be distinguished on the basis of gestures alone.”