Body Language (Reading Hands and Arms)

Reading Hands and Arms in Body Language

Hand and arm positioning is one of the biggest giveaways to someone's thoughts and emotions. For example, when someone is happy (e.g., in an interesting conversation), he will move his hands and arms in an animated manner. A happy person will even have animated arm movements when walking. Conversely, if a person is feeling down, his arm movements become more suppressed as if his arms have suddenly become heavier, and they sink, reflecting his mood.

We all use our hands and arms to gesticulate when we speak. Again, just watch a child. Children tend to gesticulate far more freely than adults. As we grow up, we learn to conceal our emotions, and this includes limiting how much we gesticulate. But if you watch an adult who is arguing to the point of losing his temper or getting excited, his arm movements become far more animated. Arm gesticulation usually indicates a flood of emotion, either positive or negative. It is a sign of the adult constraints on emotion failing, and the adult reverting to more child-like mannerisms. Even when suppressed, there is usually sufficient hand and arm activity for you to interpret. But again, remember – it's all part of an overall picture. It's not just a case of animated arms meaning happy or angry, and suppressed arms meaning sad or controlled.

Mimes, Partial mimes, Eloquence and Cultural Influence

Hand movements are also used to mime or partially mime the words being said (called self-mirroring), and care must be taken not to confuse these mimes with body-language cues. For example, if a person is talking about pushing a car, he might imitate the push with his palms down. That's not a palms-down gesture (covered below). It's just a mime. Similarly, if a person is talking about opening a magazine, he might rotate one of his hands from palm down to palm up. Again, that's not a body-language cue. It's a mime, or, in this case, a partial mime. Presenting mimes and partial mimes is the main reason people consciously move their arms and hands when speaking. However, the way in which the mimes are performed (e.g., in an animated or sluggish manner) can offer a clue about their thoughts and emotions. The mimes themselves don't. Eliminating them from your "reading" takes real practice. There is also a cultural influence to consider. The Mediterranean peoples use far more gesticulation to accompany talking than northern Europeans. (Picture the Italian gesticulating wildly at the scene of an accident.) It has also been observed that people who have a limited vocabulary use their hands and arms far more than eloquent individuals as a way of compensating. So, you could be dealing with an inarticulate person as opposed to a happy or an angry one. These are all factors which could confuse your interpretation of someone's hand and arm movements. And, as ever, never forget that you are looking for clusters of cues, not just isolated ones.

But this doesn't mean it's not worth observing hand and arm movements. There are some very definite signals which are worth keeping an eye out for. For example, when people are told something they disagree with or dislike, they tend to pull their hands closer to their bodies. It is believed this happens because the subconscious tries to give reassurance – almost as though it's trying to get them to hug themselves. (In extreme examples of stress, full-on self-hugging can actually occur.)

Arm movements also become less pronounced in those trying to avoid detection. In Iraq during the hostilities, one of the tells for spotting a suicide bomber was that the bomber exhibited far less arm movement than those around him. This is because the bomber subconsciously thinks that by not moving his body as much, he is making himself less noticeable. (It's a microcosm of the freeze response.) Similarly, a shoplifter will often have non-animated arms as he tries to make himself inconspicuous. Also, an individual caught in a lie will momentarily stop his arm movements as he tries to steer around that part of the conversation.

Palm Positions

Numerous experimental studies show that palms-up behaviours portray positivity, whereas palms-down ones can portray negativity or, more often than not, neutrality. Palms-up movements are also presented as a sign of honesty and welcoming. This is a well-reported trait, and anyone worth his salt who is trying to convince you of his idea or sell you something will do so with lots of palms-up gestures. You might not know you're reading his body language, but you will be.

Now, at this point, it starts to get a little complicated. Don't forget, we said palms-up gestures are presented as a sign of honesty. They do not always mean the person is being honest. It just means the person wants you to think he's being honest. Joe Navarro, an ex-FBI interrogator, in his book What Every Body is Saying actually shows that palm-down displays are often associated with truthful declarations, e.g. "I did not rob that bank". If the accused believes he has nothing to hide and the truth will stand on its own merits, he might not feel the need to throw in some "convincing" palms-up gestures. So, palms-up gestures only really tell you that the person wants to be believed and not that he's telling the truth. It also doesn't mean he's telling a lie. So, life's not simple unfortunately. But, all of these ideas add to the mix that you are trying to interpret.

If you are negotiating to buy a car and the salesman is exhibiting palms-up behaviour while stating that he cannot go any lower on the price, he wants you to believe him, and thinks he's exhibiting open and honest behaviour. If his palms are down (for example, resting or pressing on a desk), his statement is likely to be more emphatic in its delivery. In the first instance, keep negotiating, because you might be able to push the price down further. In the second, he's probably at his limit, and you won't get further concessions from him. So, if you can get him from flailing around the showroom floor with lots of palms-up gestures to crying at his desk with his hands flat on its surface, you should probably take that as a sign you've won the negotiation. Clearly, it won't be as obvious as that. It's for you to read the shades between those two positions to understand how you're faring.

There's also a widely held theory out there that people who don't gesticulate with their hands when talking are considered less trustworthy than those who do. Politicians know this only too well, and they tend to be more animated than most. In particular, they like to use lots of open-arm gestures to convey honesty. They also tend to avoid pointing, which is seen as rude, opting instead for straight-hand indicating to produce a more authoritative yet less rude point.


Staying on the theme of being rude, next we'll look at handshakes. This is a well-worn subject, and much has been written about handshakes and how to perform the perfect shake. My advice would be not to expend too many mental calories thinking about this. Just shake the person's hand naturally and smile a bit. Your grip should be firmish, but it should not maim the recipient. Any actions that are too contrived (e.g., staring, hand crushing, being too happy, being too enthusiastic) will just be disturbing.

Back in the 1980s, "handshakeologists" would have told you that, as well as a manly grip, you should also be the one with your palm facing downwards during a handshake (i.e., you should make sure your hand is on top). This, according to them, would establish a lasting dominance. (I have actually seen two people trying to achieve this in a handshake. It was the most cringe-worthy, two-second arm-wrestling competition I've ever witnessed.) I'm totally unconvinced it has any effect whatsoever. I also think telling someone to ensure a "strong manly handshake" is another poor piece of advice. I am never charmed by individuals who try to assert their masculinity or dominance by crushing the life out of my metacarpals. For a man, you can avoid an annoyingly strong handshake by pushing the web of your hand (the skin between forefinger and thumb) hard into theirs, as this makes it difficult for them to grip tightly. If you are a women and some ill-mannered "baboon" is crushing your hand, simply state in a just-too-loud-but-confident manner "you're hurting my hand". The individual will look foolish, and you'll have taught him a life-long etiquette lesson. In fact, you could say this even if he's not hurting your hand and you wanted to take him down a peg or two before a meeting. Now, that's manipulation! If you're a hand-crusher, my advice would be to quit it. It leaves a negative rather than positive impression. Conversely, the dead-fish handshake (limp and cold) should also be avoided. However, if you do encounter a limp handshake, just remember there could be a good explanation for it. The shaker might have a hand injury, be a musician or simply be a tradesman who needs his hands.

Cultural Differences in Body Language

Next, a quick story on handholding that might help readers who do business outside Europe. In the West, handholding between heterosexual males is simply not done, but it is common in other cultures. During the war in Iraq, I was working with a colonel from an Iraqi Army intelligence unit. Mohammed was very professional and very personable, and we seemed to get on well. After a couple of months, we were walking outside discussing the day's work when he reached out and held my hand. I'd seen Iraqi officers holding hands before, and this flashed into my head just in time to stop me ripping my hand from his. However, my discomfort must have been written all over my face. Within a few seconds, the interpreter said: "He is holding your hand because he trusts you". If I had pulled my hand away, it would have been culturally extremely rude, and our professional relationship would have been damaged. So, if you're a man operating in a country where males are more tactile than in Europe, such as the Middle East, and your male host wants to hold your hand during a coffee break, go with it – you're doing well.

Steepling with Your Hands

Steepling conveys confidence. (Steepling is when the fingers of both hands are touching but not the palms.) As it is quite an easy gesture to spot, it is useful for revealing a person's state of mind. When a person is confident in what he's saying, he will steeple. However, when the conversation starts to make him feel uneasy, he will move from the steeple position to interlocking fingers. This is a subconscious pacifying gesture designed to reassure himself. It's a form of self-hugging. If his confidence increases, he is likely to return to a steeple. Interestingly, men tend to steeple above the waist, whereas women generally do it at waist level or below. So, if the person is sitting behind a desk, this important indicator about their confidence level could be lost. Therefore, when interviewing people, it is best not to use a table so the full range of non-verbal cues (including feet, legs and hands on knees) can be observed. Neck-touching is another subconscious gesture designed to reassure. It also shows that a person is feeling uneasy. A woman will tend to touch or cover her superstitial notch (at the base of her throat), whereas a man will usually touch the side of his neck or run his fingers around his collar as if it's just become too tight or his tie has just become a noose. These are all common forms of the self-hug. I once worked with a woman who was a senior manager. She had a tell of stroking her eyebrow whenever she was unhappy or concerned. She did it unconsciously as a pacifying manoeuvre. Beware though. Neck-touching can also be a flirt designed to encourage the target's eyes to the neck and further down the décolleté. This type of touch looks more like a downward caress rather than a straight touch, so you should be able to spot the difference. Both men and woman do it. This, in turn, should not be confused with a woman hiding her cleavage from letches. Oh, it's a minefield.

The information on this page is taken from
"How To Get Your Own Way"
by Craig Shrives and Paul Easter.

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