David Givens

David B. Givens Ph.D.

Your Body at Work

A Gesture to Win Friends and Influence People

Why Palm-up Gestures are Business Friendly

Posted Jun 18, 2010

One of the best hand gestures to use in business meetings is the palm-up cue. Around the globe, palm-up speaking gestures make an emotional appeal for listener support, cooperation, and understanding. Palm-up is a universal gesture made with the fingers extended and the hand rotated to an upward (or supinated) position parallel to the ceiling. The uplifted, opened palm is held out as an appealing or imploring gesture suggesting a vulnerable side, a non-aggressive stance appealing to listeners as allies rather than as rivals or foes.

Throughout the world palm-up gestures reflect moods of accommodation, congeniality, and humility. Accompanied by palm-showing cues your ideas, opinions, and remarks seem more conciliatory than assertive, aggressive, or pointed. Held out to an opponent across a conference table, the proffered palm may, like an olive branch, enlist support as an emblem of peace.

Palm-up cues are culturally universal and rooted in our basically primate nature. According to zoologist Frans de Waal, they're used by our close cousins, the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), to beg for food and settle disputes. All a chimp need do to make amends is proffer an upraised palm. Extending an open hand held in upward position means the same in the office as it does in the bush: "I mean you no harm." 

As an anthropologist I carry a notebook. I've recorded many observations of palm-up gestures appealing for sympathy, pleading for favors, and asking for help. From field notes here some of my favorite examples:

• A sales rep appeals to her boss with a palm-up cue: "Do you really want me to fly out to Cleveland tomorrow?"

• A teenager asks to borrow his mother's car using a raised palm to plead: "Please, Mom?"

• In Ghana, a tribal woman gestures with lifted palms after hearing that her husband favors polygamy and wants more than one wife: "What can we women do?" she asks hopelessly.

• In the boardroom a CEO appeals to senior staff with a palm-up gesture imploring, "I need your help."

Palm-up is one of the better signs to have in your kitbag of gestures. Use it to reach toward colleagues in a non-aggressive way to bring them psychologically closer. Though coworkers may have reservations about being touched, they appreciate signs showing they're liked and included.

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