Body Language – Hand and Arm Gestures

HAND GESTURES

Rubbing the palms together

Recently a personal friend of ours visited my wife and me at our home to discuss the details of a forthcoming skiing holiday. In the course of the conversation our friend suddenly sat back in her chair, smiled broadly, rubbed her palms together and exclaimed, ‘I can hardly wait to go!’ Non-verbally she had told us that she expected the trip to be a big success.

Rubbing the palms together is a way in which people non-verbally communicate positive expectation. The dice thrower rubs the dice between his palms as a sign of his positive expectancy of winning, the master of ceremonies rubs his palms together and says to his audience, ‘We have long looked forward to hearing our next speaker’, and the excited sales person struts into the sales manager’s office, rubs his palms together and says excitedly, ‘We’ve just got a big order, boss!’ However, the waiter who comes to your table at the end of the evening rubbing his palms together and asking, ‘Anything else, sir?’ is non-verbally telling you that he is expecting a tip.

The speed at which a person rubs his palms together signals whom he thinks will receive the positive results that are expected.

Say, for example, you want to buy a home and you go to see a real estate agent. After describing the property you are seeking, the agent rubs his palms together quickly and says, ‘I’ve got just the right place for you!’ The agent has signalled that he expects the results to be to your benefit. But how would you feel if he rubbed his palms together very slowly as he told you that he had the ideal property? He would then appear to be crafty or devious and would give you the feeling that the expected results would be to his advantage rather than yours. Sales people are taught that if they use the palm rub gesture when describing products or services to prospective buyers, they should be certain to use a fast hand action to avoid putting the buyer on the defensive. When the buyer rubs his palms together and says to the sales person, ‘Let’s see what you have to offer!’ it is a signal that the buyer is expecting to be shown something. good and is likely to make a purchase.

A word of warning: a person who is standing at a bus terminal in freezing winter conditions and who rubs his palms together briskly may not necessarily be doing this because he is expecting a bus. He does it because his hands are cold!

Thumb and Finger Rub

Rubbing the thumb against the fingertips or against the index finger is commonly used as a money expectancy gesture. It is often used by sales people who rub their fingertips and thumb together and say to their customers ‘I can save you 40 per cent’, or the person who rubs his index finger and thumb together and says to his friend, ‘Lend me ten dollars’. This is obviously a gesture that should be avoided at all times by a professional person when dealing with his clients.

Hands Clenched Together

At first this seems to be a confidence gesture as some people who use it are often smiling and sound happy. However, on one particular occasion, we saw a sales person describing the sale he had just lost. As he went further and further into his story, we noticed that not only had he taken the hands-clenched position, but his fingers were beginning to turn white and they looked as though they were welding together. This was therefore a gesture showing a frustrated or hostile attitude.

Research by Nierenberg and Calero on the hands-clenched position brought them to the conclusion that this was a frustration gesture, signalling that the person was holding back a negative attitude. The gesture has three main positions; hands clenched in front of the face, (Figure 39), hands resting on the desk (Figure 40) or on the lap when seated and placed in front of the crotch when standing (Figure 41).

There also appears to be a correlation between the height at which the hands are held and the strength of the person’s negative mood; that is, the person would be more difficult to handle when the hands are held high as in Figure 39 than he would be with the Figure 40 position. Like all negative gestures, some action needs to be taken to unlock the person’s fingers to expose the palms and the front of the body, or the hostile attitude will remain.

Steepling Hands

I stated at the beginning of this book that gestures come in clusters, like words in a sentence, and that they must be interpreted in the context in which they are observed. ‘Steepling’, as Birdwhistell called it, can be an exception to these rules, as it is often used in isolation of other gestures. In fact, people who are confident, superior types or who use minimal or restricted body gestures often use this gesture, and, by doing so, they signal their confident attitude.

My observation and research into this fascinating gesture show that it is frequently used in superior/subordinate interaction and that it can be an isolated gesture which indicates a confident or ‘know-it-all’ attitude. Managers often use this gesture position when giving instructions or advice to subordinates and it is particularly common among accountants, lawyers, managers and the like.

The gesture has two versions; the raised steeple (Figure 42), the position normally taken when the steepler is giving his opinions or ideas and is doing the talking. The lowered steeple gesture (Figure 43) is normally used when the steepler is listening rather than speaking. Nierenberg and Calero noted that women tend to use the lowered steeple position more often than the raised steeple position. When the raised steeple position is taken with the head tilted back, the person assumes an air of smugness or arrogance.

Although the steeple gesture is a positive signal, it can be used in either positive or negative circumstances and may be misinterpreted. For example, a salesman presenting his product to a potential buyer may have observed several positive gestures given by the buyer during the interview. These could include open palms, leaning forward, head up and so on. Let’s say that towards the end of the sales presentation the customer takes one of the steeple positions.

If the steeple follows a series of other positive gestures, appearing when the sales- man shows the buyer the solution to his problem, the salesman has been given a cue to close the sale, ask for the order and expect to get it. On the other hand, if the steeple gesture follows a series of negative gestures such as arm folding, leg crossing, looking away and numerous hand-to-face gestures, and if the buyer takes the steeple position towards the close of the sales presentation, the buyer may be confident that he will not buy or that he can get rid of the salesman. In both these cases the steeple gesture means confidence, but one has positive results and the other negative consequences for the salesman. The movements preceding the steeple gesture are the key to the outcome.

GRIPPING HANDS, ARMS AND WRISTS

Several prominent male members of the British Royal Family are noted for their habit of walking with their head up, chin out and one palm gripping the other hand behind the back. Not only does British Royalty use this gesture; it is common among Royalty of many countries. On the local scene, the gesture is used by the policeman patrolling his beat, the headmaster of the local school when he is walking through the school yard, senior military personnel and others in a position of authority.

This is therefore a superiority/confidence gesture position. It also allows the person to expose his vulnerable stomach, heart and throat regions to others in an unconscious act of fearlessness. Our own experience shows that, if you take this position when you are in a high stress situation, such as being inter- viewed by newspaper reporters or simply waiting outside a dentist’s surgery, you will feel quite relaxed, confident and even authoritative.

Our observation of Australian police officers has shown that the officers who do not wear firearms use this gesture frequently and often rock back and forth on the balls of the feet. However, the police officers who do wear firearms seldom display this gesture, using the hands-on-hips aggressive gesture instead (Figure 98). It seems that the firearm itself has sufficient authority for its wearer so that the palm-in-palm gesture becomes unnecessary as a display of authority.

The palm-in-palm gesture should not be confused with the hand-gripping-wrist gesture (Figure 45) which is a signal of frustration and an attempt at self-control. In this case one hand grips the other wrist or arm very tightly as if it is an attempt by one arm to prevent the other from striking out.

Interestingly, the further the hand is moved up the back, the more angry the person has become. The man in Figure 46, for example, is showing a greater attempt at self-control than the man in Figure 45 because the hand in Figure 46 is gripping the upper arm, not just the wrist. It is this type of gesture that has given rise to such expressions as, ‘Get a good grip on yourself’. This gesture is often used by sales people who have called on a potential buyer and have been asked to wait in the buyer’s reception area. It is a poor attempt by the salesman to disguise his nervousness and an astute buyer is likely to sense this. If a self-control gesture is changed to the palm-in-palm position, a calming and confident feeling results.

THUMB DISPLAYS

In palmistry, the thumbs denote strength of character and ego and the non-verbal use of thumbs agrees with this. They are used to display dominance, superiority or even aggression; thumb gestures are secondary gestures, a supportive part of a gesture cluster. Thumb displays are positive signals, often used in the typical pose of the ‘cool’ manager who uses them in the presence of subordinates. A courting man uses them in the presence of a potential female partner and they are common among people who wear high-status or prestige clothing. People wearing new, attractive clothing use thumb displays more frequently than those who wear older, outdated clothing.

The thumbs, which display superiority, become most obvious when a person gives a contradictory verbal message. Take, for example, the lawyer who turns to the jury and in a soft, low voice says, ‘In my humble opinion, ladies and gentlemen of the jury …’ while displaying dominant thumb gestures and tilting back his head to ‘look down his nose’ (Figure 48). This has the effect of making the jury feel that the lawyer is insincere, even pompous. If the lawyer wished to appear humble, he should have approached the jury with one foot toward them, his coat open, an open palm display and stooping forward a little to show humility, or even subordination to the jury.

Thumbs most often protrude from people’s pockets, sometimes from the back pockets (Figure 49) in a secretive manner to try to hide the person’s dominant attitude. Dominant or aggressive women also use this gesture; the women’s movement has allowed them to adopt many male gestures and positions (Figure 50). In addition to all this, thumb thrusters will often rock on the balls of their feet to give the impression of extra height.

Arms folded with thumbs pointing upwards is another popular thumb gesture position. This is a double signal, being that of a defensive or negative attitude, (folded arms) plus a superior attitude (displayed by the thumbs). The person using this double gesture usually gesticulates with his or her thumbs, and rocking on the balls of the feet when standing is common.

The thumb can also be used as a signal of ridicule or disrespect when it is used to point at another person. For example, the husband who leans across to his friend, points toward his wife with a closed fist thumb gesture and says, ‘Women are all the same, you know’, is inviting an argument with his wife. In this case the shaking thumb is used as a pointer to ridicule the unfortunate woman. Consequently, thumb-pointing is irritating to most women, particularly when a man does it. The shaking thumb is less common among women, although they sometimes use the gesture at their husbands or at people they do not like.

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