Updated: Aug 19, 2019
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,” Harper Collins). 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. 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, as 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. For 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,” (Harper Collins), 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:
Our hands reveal a lot about what is going on in our heads.
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.
Steepling is important to get your point across that you feel strongly about what you are saying, it is probably the most powerful display of confidence that we possess.
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 will leave a lasting negative impression. Get it right and you score emotional points.
Because any touch affects our emotional center (either positively or negatively) how we touch or even shake hands matters.
No one likes an aggressive handshake and vise-like grips are not appreciated.
1980’s style hand jujitsu where you try to dominate the other person’s hand leaves very negative impressions and is really very amateurish.
Handshakes should mirror the other person’s handshake with good eye contact.
Handshaking is a social phenomenon which is not equally practiced around the world. If you receive a very weak handshake, don’t grimace, just deal with it as that is the other person’s preference and we should strive to mirror others where we can for the sake of social synchrony.
Avoid using what’s called the “politician’s handshake” (two hands shaking one) as no one likes it, particularly from strangers. Save this handshake for your grandmother who will appreciate the extra tactile touch (both hands covering hers for a long time) a lot more than your business acquaintances.
Remember in some cultures, a handshake is a secondary greeting gesture. A hug or an abrazo, even a kiss, may be more in order.
Don’t point with your index finger, even if it’s to direct a person to a chair. Use your whole hand (fingers extended) to direct or point.
Hands also indicate how much we care for ourselves and how we view social convention. Hands may be tended to or they may be filthy; nails may be manicured or look ratty.
Long nails on men are seen as odd or effeminate and people typically interpret nail biting as a sign of anxiety, nervousness or insecurity.
Wear too many rings, or a pinky ring, and you won't be taken seriously.
Tattoos, on the hands in particular, are not very well received in the professional ranks and should be avoided if you are in the business sector, medicine, law, and finance.
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.
If you are interested in how body language is used in a forensic setting, please read Three Minutes to Doomsday; An FBI Agent, A Traitor, And The Worst Breach in U.S History (Scribner) - a true life account of how body language was used to catch a spy and uncover the "worst espionage breach in U.S history."