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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Chapter 6


Napoleon in his Study by Jacques-Louis David, 1812, showing the French leader in his famous pose - did he really have an ulcer or was he just having a good time?

A human hand has 27 small bones, including eight pebble-shaped bones in the wrist, laced together by a network of ligaments, dozens of tiny muscles to move the joints. Scientists have noted that there are more nerve connections between the hands and the brain than between any other parts of the body, and so the gestures and positions we take with our hands give powerful insights into our emotional state. Because our hands are usually held in front of our body, these signals are easy to see and most of us have several trademark hand positions we continually use. Mention the name 'Napoleon' and many would describe a man with his hand tucked into his coat with his thumb pointing upwards and will probably volunteer a theory or tell rude jokes about why he did it. These include: he had a stomach ulcer; he was winding his watch; he had a skin disease; that in his era it was impolite to put your hands in your pockets; he had breast cancer; he had a deformed hand; he kept a perfumed sachet in his vest that he'd sniff occasionally; he was playing with himself; and that painters don't like to paint hands. The real story is that in 1738, well before Napoleon's birth, Francois Nivelon published A Book Of Genteel behavior describing this posture '...the hand-held-in was a common stance for men of breeding and manly boldness, tempered with modesty.' When Napoleon saw the painting he said to the artist, 'You have understood me, my dear David.' So it was a gesture to convey status.

The history books show that Napoleon did not have this gesture in his regular repertoire - in fact, he didn't even sit for the famous painting that featured it - the artist painted him from memory and added the gesture. But the notoriety of this hand gesture highlights how the artist, Jacques-Louis David, understood the authority that the position of the hand and thumb would project.

Napoleon was 5'4" (1.64m) tall but those who see the painting perceive him as over 6' (1.85m) tall.

How the Hands Talk

For thousands of years, the level of status people held in a society would determine the priority order in which they could hold the floor when speaking. The more power or authority you had, the more others would be compelled to stay silent while you spoke. For example, Roman history shows that a low-status person could be executed for interrupting Julius Caesar.

Today, most people live in societies where freedom of speech flourishes and usually anyone who wants to put forward an opinion can do so. In Britain, Australia and the US it's even permissible to interrupt the President or Prime Minister with your opinion or to give a condescending slow handclap, as happened to Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003 during a television discussion on the Iraqi crisis. In many countries, the hands have taken on the role of 'punctuation marks' to regulate turn-taking in conversation. The Hands Raised gesture has been borrowed from the Italians and French, who are the biggest users of 'hand talking', but it is still rarely seen in England, where waving your hands about when you speak is seen as inappropriate or poor style.

In Italy, the order of talking is simple - the person with his hands raised has the floor and does the talking. The listener will have his hands down or behind his back. So the trick is to try to get your hands in the air if you want to get a word in and this can be done either by looking away and then raising them or by touching the other person's arm to suppress their hand as you raise yours. Many people assume that when Italians talk they are being friendly or intimate because they continually touch each other, but in fact each is attempting to restrict the other's hands and take the floor.

In this chapter we'll evaluate some of the most common hand and thumb gestures in widespread use.

Tie an Italian's hands behind his back and he'll be speechless.

On the One Hand...

Watching how a person summarizes a discussion giving both points of view can reveal whether they have a bias one way or another. They usually hold one hand palm up and articulate each point and then give the opposing points on the other hand. Right-handed people reserve their favored point of view for their right hand and left-handers favor their left.

On the Other Hand, Gestures Improve Recall

Using hand gestures grabs attention, increases the impact of communication and helps individuals retain more of the information they are hearing. At the University of Manchester in England, Geoffrey Beattie and Nina McLoughlin conducted a study where volunteers listened to stories featuring "old school" cartoon characters such as Roger Rabbit, Tweetie Pie, and Sylvester the Cat. For some listeners, a narrator added hand gestures such as moving the hands up and down quickly to show running, a waving movement to demonstrate a hair dryer and arms wide apart to show a fat opera singer. When the listeners were tested ten minutes later, those who had seen the hand gestures had up to a third higher response when recalling the details of the stories, demonstrating the dramatic effect hand gestures have on our recall ability.

In this chapter, we'll examine quite a few of the most common hand gestures you're likely to see every day and we'll discuss what to do about them.

Rubbing the Palms Together

One time a friend visited us at home to discuss our collective winter holiday plans. In the course of the conversation she sat back, smiled broadly, rubbed her palms together rapidly and exclaimed, 'I can hardly wait!' With her Raised-Palms-Rub she had told us non-verbally that she expected the trip to be very memorable experience.

Rubbing Hands Together
Showing positive expectations

Rubbing the palms together is a way in which people 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 been looking forward to hearing our next speaker,' and the excited salesperson struts into the sales manager's office, rubs his palms together and says excitedly, 'We've just received a big order!' 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 has expectancy of a good tip.

The speed at which a person rubs their palms together signals who he thinks will receive the positive benefits. Say, for example, you want to buy a home and you visit an estate agent. After describing the property you want, the agent rubs his palms together quickly and says, 'I've got just the right house for you!' In this way the agent has signalled that he expects the results to be to your benefit. But how would you reel if he rubbed his palms together very slowly as he told you that he had the ideal property? He'd seem sneaky or devious and you'd get the feeling that he expected the results to benefit him, not you.

The speed of hand rubbing indicates who the gesturer thinks will get the benefit

Salespeople are taught to use the palm rub gesture when describing products or services to prospective buyers, and to use a fast hand action to avoid putting buyers on the defensive When a buyer quickly rubs his palms together and says, 'Let's see what you have to offer!' it signals that he's expecting to see something good and might buy.

Rubbing Hands Together
'Have I got a deal for you!'

Always remember context: a person who rubs his palms together briskly while standing at a bus terminal on a cold day may not necessarily be doing it because he's expecting a bus. He does it because his hands are cold.

Thumb and Finger Rub

Rubbing the thumb against the index finger or fingertips is commonly used as a money expectancy gesture. Its symbolism is that of rubbing a coin between the thumb and fingertips. It is often used by the street vendor who says, 'I can save you 40%,' or by the person who says to his friend, 'Can you lend me a hundred dollars?'

Rubbing Fingers Together
'We can make money out of this!'

This gesture should be avoided at all times by any professional person who deals with clients because it carries negative associations about money.

Hands Clenched Together

At first, this gesture can seem to signal confidence as some people who use it often also smile. On one occasion, we observed a negotiator describing the deal he had just lost. As he went further and further into his story, he had not only taken the Hands Clenched position, his fingers were beginning to turn white and looked as if they were welding together. The Hands Clenched gesture shows a restrained, anxious or negative attitude. It's also a favorite of Queen Elizabeth when she is on royal visits and public appearances and it is usually positioned on her lap.

Hands Clenched
Hands clenched in raised position may reveal frustration, even when smiling

Research into the Hands Clenched position by negotiation experts Nierenberg and Calero showed that it was also a frustration gesture when used during a negotiation, signalling that the person was holding back a negative or anxious attitude. It was a position assumed by a person who felt they were either not convincing the other person or thought they were losing the negotiation.

The Hands Clenched gesture has three main positions: hands clenched in front of the face; hands clenched resting on the desk or on the lap; and, when standing, hands clenched in front of his genitals.

Argentina President Cristina Kirchner
Former Argentina President Cristina Kirchner with hands clenched in center position

Penn and Teller
Tricksters Penn and Teller looking deceptively modest with their hands clenched in a lower position

A correlation was discovered between the height at which the hands are held and the degree of the person's frustration: that is, a person would be more difficult to deal with when the hands are held high, as in a center position, than they would be in a lower position (see pictures). As with all negative gestures, you need to take action to unlock the person's fingers, by offering them a drink or asking them to hold something, or their negative attitude will remain in the same way it does with any arm-crossing position.

The Steeple

So far, we've emphasized that gestures come in clusters, like words in a sentence, and that they must be interpreted in the context in which you observe them. Steepling can be an exception to these rules, as it often occurs in isolation. The fingers of one hand lightly press against those of the other hand to form a church steeple and will sometimes rock back and forth like a spider doing push-ups on a mirror.

We have determined that the Steeple was frequently used in superior-subordinate interaction and that it indicates a confident or self-assured attitude. Superiors often use this gesture position when they give instructions or advice to subordinates and it is particularly common among accountants, lawyers and managers. People who are confident, superior types often use this gesture and, by doing so, signal their confident attitude.

Finger Tips Touching
Confident he has the right answers

Those who use this gesture sometimes convert the Steeple into a praying gesture in an attempt to appear God-like. As a general rule, the Steeple should be avoided when you want to be persuasive or win the other person's confidence, as it can sometimes be read as smugness or arrogance.

Palms Together
William Reilly may appear as God-like

If you want to look as if you are confident and have all the right answers, the Steeple position will do it for you.

Using Steepling to Win at Chess

Picture this scene - you're playing chess and it's your turn to move. You move your hand over the chessboard and rest your finger on a chess piece, indicating you intend to move that piece. You then notice your opponent sit back and make the Steeple gesture. Your opponent has just told you, non-verbally, that he feels confident about your move so your best strategy is not to make it. You next touch another chess piece and see your opponent assume the Hands Clenched gesture or Arms Crossed position, signalling that he doesn't like your potential move - so you should make it.

The Steeple has two main versions: the Raised Steeple, the position often assumed when the Steepler is giving his opinions or ideas or is doing the talking; and the Lowered Steeple, which is normally used when the Steepler is listening rather than speaking.

Lowered Steeple
The Lowered Steeple

Women tend to use the Lowered Steeple position more often than the Raised Steeple. When the Raised Steeple is taken with the head tilted back, the person takes on 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, let's say you are presenting an idea to someone and have seen them using several positive gestures during the presentation, such as open palms, leaning forward, head up, nodding and so on. Let's say that towards the end of your presentation the other person begins to Steeple.

If the Steeple follows a series of other positive gestures and appears when you show the other person the solution to his problem, it's likely you've been given the go-ahead to 'ask for the order'. On the other hand, if the Steeple gesture follows a series of negative gestures such as arm folding, leg crossing, looking away and hand-to-face gestures, he may be confident that he won't say 'yes' or that he can get rid of you. In both these cases the Steeple registers confidence, but one has positive results and the other negative consequences. The gestures preceding the Steeple are the key to the outcome.


Your hands are always in front of you, revealing your emotions and attitudes. Many body language gestures can be difficult to learn but hand gestures can be practiced and rehearsed to a point where you can have fairly good control over where your hands are and what they are doing. When you learn to read hand gestures you'll look more confident, feel more successful and win more chess games.

The Face Platter

This is not a negative gesture - it's a positive one used in courtship. It's used mainly by women and by gay men who want to attract a man's attention. A woman will place one hand on top of the other and present her face to a man as if it was on a platter for him to admire.

Face Platter
The Face Platter - Presenting her face for a man to admire

If you are going to use flattery - sincere or not - this gesture gives the green light for it.

Holding Hands Behind the Back

The Duke of Edinburgh and several other male members of the British Royal Family are noted for their habit of walking with head up, chin out and one hand holding the other hand behind the back. This gesture is common among leaders and royalty and is used by the policemen patrolling the beat, the headmaster walking around the school playground, senior military personnel and anyone in a position of authority.

Hands Behind BackHands Behind Back
Back and front views of the superiority-confidence gesture

The emotions attached to this gesture are superiority, confidence and power. The person exposes their vulnerable stomach, heart, pelvis, and throat in a subconscious act of fearlessness. Our experience shows that, if you take this position when you are in a high-stress situation, such as being interviewed by TV reporters or waiting outside a dentist's surgery, you will begin to feel confident and even authoritative, as a result of cause and effect.

Research with law enforcement officers showed that officers who do not wear firearms use this position regularly and often rock back and forth on the balls of the feet when standing to gain additional height. Police officers who wear firearms seldom use this gesture, preferring to let their arms hang by their side or to have their thumbs tucked into the belt. The firearm gives the officer sufficient power that Palm-in-Palm behind the back is not a necessary display of authority.

The Hand-Gripping-Wrist gesture communicates a different emotion to Palm-in-Palm behind the back. It is a signal of frustration and an attempt at self-control. One hand grips the other wrist or arm tightly behind the back, as if in an attempt by one arm to prevent the other from striking out.

Hand Gripping Wrist
The Hand-Gripping-Wrist gesture

The higher up one hand grips the opposite arm, the more frustrated or angry the person is likely to be. In the first image below we see moderate self-control while in the second, the gentleman is showing a progressively greater attempt at self-control than in the previous picture, because the hand is gripping the upper arm, not just the lower arm or wrist. This gesture shows the origin of the expression, 'Get a grip on yourself.'

Lower Arm GripUpper Arm Grip
The Lower Arm Grip and the Upper Arm Grip

Wrist-and-arm-gripping behind the back can often be observed outside a courtroom when warring parties are face to face, in salespeople standing in a customer's reception area and in patients waiting for a doctor. It's an attempt to disguise nervousness or self-restraint and, if you catch yourself doing it, change to the Palm-in-Palm behind the back and you will begin to feel more confident and in control.

Thumb Displays

As mentioned earlier, thumbs denote superiority. In palmistry, the thumbs represent strength of character and the ego, and body language signals involving the thumbs also show self-important attitudes. Thumbs are used to display dominance, assertiveness or sometimes aggressive attitudes; thumb gestures are secondary gestures and are usually part of a cluster. Thumb displays are positive signals, often used in the typical pose of the 'cool' individual who uses them to show superiority. A man will use Protruding Thumbs around women to whom he is attracted and people who wear high-status or prestige clothing also display their thumbs. You will rarely see a low-status individual, such as a vagrant, doing it.

Daniel Craig, Hands in Pockets
Protruding Thumbs - Daniel Craig

Thumb displayers also often rock on the balls of their feet to give the impression of extra height.


This gesture is common to men and women who feel they are in a superior position to others. In a work environment, the boss will walk around the office in the position and, when the boss is away, the person who is next in charge will walk around using it. But none of the subordinates would dare to use it in front of the boss.

Bruce Springsteen, Hands in Pockets
The Boss using his Thumb-Protruding-from-Coat-Pocket gesture

Thumb displays can become 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 ...' while displaying his thumbs and tilting back his head to 'look down his nose' at them.

Old School Politician
An old school lawyer pretending to be humble

This can make the jury feel that the lawyer is being insincere or pompous. If a lawyer wanted to appear humble, he should approach the jury with his coat open, with open palms and stoop forward to appear smaller.

'You seem like an intelligent, honest man, ' the lawyer said smugly. I'd return the compliment, sir,' said the witness. 'But I'm under oath.'

Thumbs sometimes protrude from the back pockets as if the person is trying to hide their dominant attitude. Women were rarely seen using Thumb Displays until the 1960s when they began to wear pants and take on more authoritative roles in society.

Thumb Displays
Thumb display revealing confident, authoritative attitude

Arms-Folded-with-Thumbs-Pointing-Upwards is another common thumb cluster. This is a double signal, showing a defensive or negative attitude (folded arms), plus a superior attitude revealed by the thumbs. The person using this cluster usually gestures with his thumbs when he talks, and rocks on the balls of his feet when standing.

Thumbs Out, Feeling Superior
Closing himself off but still feeling superior

The thumb can also be used as a signal of ridicule or disrespect when it is used to point at another person. For example, a guy who leans across to his friend, points towards his wife with his thumb and says 'She can nag at times', is inviting an argument with her. In this case, the backward pointing thumb is used as a pointer to make fun of her. Consequently, thumb-pointing is an irritant to most women, particularly coming from a man. The Thumb Thrust gesture is not common among women, although they sometimes use the gesture to point at people they don't like.

Man's Thumbs Pointed Out
With Rachel, it can be a delicate balancing act. At the moment it's ... "let's leave, I'm bored". Randomly, at home the mood might be "NO WAY the guys are trashing my living room this weekend watching football, leaving beer bottles and half-eaten food strewn all over!" Seriously though ... no complaints, life is good.


The thumbs have been used as a sign of power and authority for thousands of years. In Roman times, the thumb held up or down meant life or death to a gladiator. Even without any training, others intuitively decode thumb signals and seem to understand their meaning. You are now in a position not only to decode thumb signs, but to train yourself to use them.

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Westside Toastmasters is located in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, California