Updated: Aug 19, 2019
I know that for many readers when it comes to body language, the focus is mostly on the face. But if you really want to understand others, especially at a distance, please don’t forget the hands. Our hands are exquisitely expressive of our sentiments—if you doubt that, examine how we touch the things we care about and those we love.
Conversely, watch how we use the hands to tug at our clothes, ventilate, or massage them together when we are slightly anxious.
There are two behaviors of the hands that over the years have struck me as rather interesting because there is so little about them in the literature and, more often than not, are only observed when someone is struggling with or having difficulty with something emotional. Because we don’t usually see these two behaviors utilized, I referred to them in The Dictionary of Body Language (HarperCollins) as "reserved behaviors." In other words, we reserve them for when things are particularly difficult.
The first is the more familiar behavior I call “Teepee Finger Rub”. This is where the fingers are interlaced (palms facing each other), but rather than pressed down as if in prayer, or as when we wring the hands; in this instance they remain very stiff. The fingers may hold this position momentarily or they will slide ever so slowly (and that is an important distinction) back and forth while remaining stiffly intertwined. This has been observed when someone is struggling to get a point across, or they have something to say that has very negative consequences. Often seen at work when someone has to tell the boss that something went wrong and also in couples’ therapy when one or the other partner is unburdening themselves of something painful.
The second behavior is similar, but somewhat more convoluted, as the fingers are once more intertwined, but the palms this time are facing up. This is an extreme variant on the interlacing of the fingers to displace stress noted above. Here the person holds the hands palms up and interlaces the fingers, so the thumbs are facing forward. Try it out and you will notice just how odd it is to hold your hands that way and yet, if you look closely you will see it often enough when something distressing is going on.
Why do we do these behaviors? It is hypothesized that the interlacing of the fingers increases the surface area of very sensitive digital nerves we normally use to feel and sense, that in turn serves as a tactile pacifier (adaptive behavior) to release stress. The additional contortion of the hands and the fingers when the palms are facing up, stresses muscles, joints, and tendons of the fingers (try it, you will sense what I mean) and that appear to provide yet more tactile stimuli—that in turn serves to relieve stress in highly emotionally charged situations.
So, while everyone else is looking for those much vaunted but highly elusive “micro-expressions” up close, you can be making some very accurate observations, thirty feet away down the hall.
* * * * * * * * *
Joe Navarro, M.A. is the author of thirteen books: What Every Body is Saying, Louder Than Words and Dangerous Personalities including his latest, The Dictionary of Body Language. For additional information and a free bibliography, please contact him through Psychology Today or at www.jnforensics.com. Joe can be found on Twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. Copyright © 2019, Joe Navarro
Navarro, Joe.2018. The Dictionary of Body Language: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. New York : Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe.2008. What Every BODY Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.