Hand Gestures – Meaning, Emblems, Illustrators, Affect Display, Regulators, Adaptors

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Before we start, let me ask you a question: How often do you believe you make gestures with your hands? How often do you take actions that have nothing to do with being “productive”?

Hard to say, I know, because we barely aware of such habits, but for try this: Resist making ANY hand movements that don’t have a specific use during one full day.

Just try to hold your hands as still as possible to your sides – don’t scratch your nose, wave for hello, touch someone’s arm or point to show the way, 24 hours of (almost) complete stillness with your hands.

I myself tried this once and I found that restriction extremely frustrating, I admit, I slipped more often than I care to remember.

But besides the physical inconvenience, I found out that my interactions with others just felt “stuck”, my conversations grew to be formal, cold and short, as if everything I said had a very short expiration date.

I indulge you to try the same and compare your results, I don’t think you’ll find this a s trivial as you may think.

But why is that so? What exactly is the  purpose of such “unproductive” yet vital hand gestures in our life?

These are the exact questions we’re gonna explore in this complete series. but first let’s start with:

Why do we Gesture with our Hands?

Most of our gestures come from the hands, and we’re very adept at making and understanding signals through them. How it came to be?

Well, the hands are our main tools for about. anything – from playing music to building skyscrapers, hands are the symbol of productivity and creative work.

It’s only natural then that we will find a way to communicate with them. (This adaptation happened looong before we had words or alphabet)

The way our hands built is very unique actually – the opposable thumb that can flex and reach the other fingers allows us to hold and use tools.

This trait is very useful, because using tools for creative solutions is one of our trademarks as an “advanced” and smart species.

Contrary to popular belief, human are not the only species with opposable thumb (some other primates got it too, and even in the legs!), but it’s safe to say that we’re the most adept using it and adapt it to our needs.

That is, until we’ll teach an ape to play the drums:

Another aspect is touch which is perhaps the most fundamental form of communication we have, is also relied on our hands.

The hands are filled with tons of sensitive sensory nerves that can distinguish even the slightest differences in pressure, heat and texture.

With some practice you can easily identify coins by touching their surface with your fingertips, just like blind people do, a feat I  don’t believe you’re capable to perform with any other part of your body.

The combination of these two qualities – both manipulating and understating the world around us through our hands, make them a great candidate as the prime tool for making gestures to communicate with others.

5 Categories of Hand Gestures

Kinesics – the study of body language is divided into 5 main categories. They are classified by the role and purpose of the gesture or display:

  • Emblems
  • Illustrators
  • Affect Displays
  • Regulators
  • Adaptors

Now don’t worry I’ll explain each in a minute, as they will be the base categories to understanding the role of hand gestures in our lives.

Each heading below leads to its specific part in the series, where you will find a more detailed explanations and some common examples.

Note: I want to clarify that the division of kinesics is NOT unique to hand gestures alone, I only use the main scheme so that these signals can be explored more easily and profoundly.

Let’s get right to it:

Emblems – Figuratively Speaking

hand signs

Emblems is the group of gestures that is most easily identified and understood, that is, if you share the same cultural background, knowledge or experience.

These are conscious motions that are used to replace words. They are learned just like words and have a specific message that the maker wants to deliver.

Examples: “The finger”, victory sign, thumbs up, the “OK” signal.

Problems arise when we have a different idea of what a specific gesture means.

Illustrators – Visual Aids

Illustrators are actions that go along with words. Whether we want to describe something as big, important, or delicate we have the hands to help us out.
As you might already experienced – it’s very frustrating talking without moving, it feels so robotic and lacking. When we “talk with the hands” we create a whole new layer of information regarding what we say. If that layer matches our words we reinforce our message, if it does not, it contradicts our words and thus makes us look unreliable.

Of course, on their own, such hand gestures can mean little to nothing, their strength is in their combination with actual words.

Affect Displays

This set of gestures is used specifically to reveal a certain emotion. This means it’s more in the realm of facial expressions, but I’ll cover in this part some hand motions that usually accompany certain emotions (they most often will be on a low-awareness level).

Plus, in the second part we’ll talk about attraction and which signs can give it away.


Regulators refer to actions that help regulate (I know, it’s straightforward) our conversations. How do you know it’s your turn to speak? How do you know when a reply is required? By nonverbal means of course.

Furthermore, we will talk about the feedback signals we receive in response. Can we hear the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ before it is verbalized? Find out here.


Not all hand gestures are about communication. Adaptors are actions we do to make ourselves more comfortable or to release excess energy of stress and excitement, these are the least aware motions, such as: Shifting weight from side to side to sit or stand more comfortably.

What about Scratching, tapping feet or drumming fingers? The meanings behind such gestures can range from a simple momentary discomfort to outright deceitful behavior.

What are Emblems?

The first group of kinesics we want to look at is emblems, this group is the most evident type of gestures we have. because:

  • A. We invented emblems, we’re not born knowing them – we absorb them through our culture by interacting with others.
  • B. We use them with full conscious awareness.

Emblems are our substitutes for actual words, just like the sign language blind people use. Of course, we’re not as adept as them in communicating through motions but we can learn it quickly enough and adapt it to our needs.

I personally learned many hand signs during my military service. Infantry troops are trained to use and understand many hand gestures so they can follow commands through silent motions when discretion is needed. Some gestures were silent commands, others provided valuable information about what lies ahead.

Still, we have one big problem with emblems when we try to interpret them:


Maybe you’re tired of hearing this, but context is key in nonverbal communication, especially when it comes to emblems – hand gestures that depend on customs and social background.
I mentioned that we invented these gestures – but it doesn’t mean everyone got the same manual!This mean what you might take for granted in your home, can mean something entirely different in another place.

The good news are that we still have many things in common globally: like understanding pointing, an gesture that universally means “look there!” –  an important concept when danger is imminent.

But all in all, you need to keep an open mind and adapt yourself to your environment, it’s quite foolish to ignore local customs just because you know differently. Communication after all is about understanding – if you know how to act around foreigners, or at least accept their ways – you create a bridge to their way of life and thought.

Remember also that cultural differences are not the only factor that can change the perception of gestures.

look at the photo below:

a ha

What does this gesture means? Probably it has something to do with her having a new theory or idea, an “eureka” moment, right?

But what if she was wearing nun’s robes? The message was probably somewhat different – something to do with divine power (although I admit she looks a little too enthusiastic to be a stereotypical nun). And if it was in a classroom then she was asking a question, or trying to answer one.

To sum this up – sometimes, context is everything.


five indigenous people posing for picture taking wearing their cultural dress

If you think about the 2 characteristics of emblems I mentioned it’s easy to understand why such gestures make us feel unique and connect easily to people in our own culture.

If we use the same gestures – we speak the same language – we start to think the same way, it’s our common ground. These signs help create a collective identity, a society with similar habits and way of life.

No wonder that the role of such gestures is often to create bonds, a source of pride and belonging to a certain group.


  • The special signals, greetings, and handshakes of gang members help to identify members and show empathic bonds.
  • Teenagers who invent their own special signals with their peers ridicule others outside of their group.
  • A gesture can be an appreciation or admiration signal to a certain team or band (just like “the horns” gesture we’ll talk about later)

So if you’re an outsider, you have much to gain by learning the symbols used by others. Not only they will understand you better, but they will also appreciate your effort in learning their gestures, and being like them, you create an instant connection.(of course there are exceptions, don’t give in to EVERY peer pressure – if everyone jump from the roof don’t jump straight after them, but maybe ask them what’s the rush).

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Thumbs are a unique feature of our hand, it’s what allows us to hold and use tools effectively. As such, gesticulations with the thumb have a “superiority flavor” to them. To “put someone’s under the thumb” is the act of dominating and controlling him, but there are other meanings, it depends where you are and to where you’re pointing that thumb:

  • If it’s up – it’s supportive
  • If it’s down – this sucks 
  • If you point at someone – a dismissive signal, a ridiculing gesture.
  • If it’s pointed towards the door – you know where to go.
  • if you stand on the road – you’re an hitchhiker waiting for a lift.
  • in Australia it shows what you can sit on.

If you count with your fingers, which finger do you count as 1? If you’re European you’re most likely start with the thumb. Sometimes it’s critical:

hand of a man counting one to three starting with his thumb

Victory, peace or something completely different?

I already mentioned that the “V” sign is very sensitive gesture.

This gesticulation can mean peace or victory – A positive and fitting meanings for any group photo. But try the inverted version in Britain, Australia or Greece (especially when it’s done with a quick jerk of the hand) and things won’t look so peaceful (again – it’s “up yours”, you have to be really careful with “positive” gestures in Britain)

And of course, in many places (or circumstances) it counts as the number 2.

The Horns

This is one of the gesticulations that started an evolution of its own, its meaning not only changing from place to place but from time to time and whether you’re a rock fan or a sports fan.

Anyway, “the horns” gesture is created by holding the middle fingers with your thumb and pointing the index finger and pinky.

And the meanings?

  1. A superstitious symbol in Italy and Spain –  it’s a ward against the evil eye called the malocchio. In such places, if you see something bad you make this symbol and it’s supposed to protect you from bad luck. (it’s similar to the superstitious act of knocking on hard wood)
  2. Another use of this gesticulation in Spain and Italy is when it’s pointed towards a specific person  – In this case, it’s supposed to mean that his wife is not very faithful to him (to put it lightly).
  3. Heavy metal – popularized by Dio “the horns” became the symbol of heavy metal.
  4. Some take it as if it’s the sign of the devil. (No surprise here, Heavy metal + Superstitious sign = you get the devil).
  5. The sign of many sports clubs. Most notably the Texas Longhorn football team. You know.. because of the bull’s skull Texas loves so much.
  6. This sign became so popular over time, that today every teen thinks it’s cool without really knowing why, or if it’s the right genre for it.

As you can see, it all depends on whom you’ll ask and to which generation he or she belongs. Who knows what this hand gesture will mean in a few years.

The “OK” Sign

This gesture was popularized by the American culture to mean OK. (as was the word “OK” spread to mean “good” or “yes” in many parts of the globe). This gesticulation is interesting because it can be an emblem for OK, but it’s also very similar to the precision grip we’re going to talk about later (just keep that in mind).In some parts of Europe (like France) this sign can mean “zero” – an appreciation to something’s or someone’s worth.

In Japan they thought about the shape of a coin – so it stand as the signal for money there. And if we mentioned money, in many countries the signal for it is the rubbing of the middle and index finger with the thumb.

And some cultures took it to a more sinister side (like Turkey and Russia) where it represent a sexual insult meaning “you’re an homosexual“. I don’t need to elaborate why, do I?

We arrive to the second type of gestures – illustrators.

True to their namesake, these gestures provide a visual image to what we try to say verbally. While they’re not entirely replace words like emblems do, they do make sense when they’re added to the verbal mix. Think about them as spices, you don’t have to add them, but it’s way better with them.

We use illustrators all the time, pretty much unaware, especially when we try to describe an object to someone who’s unfamiliar with it – we instantly find ourselves making figures of how it looks (and perhaps used) to make it clearer. Because showing how something is done is often much more effective and easier than describing it in words.

So illustrators are not essential for us to understand each other, but they are a big help when it comes to put an emphasis or to add a visual picture. In fact, studies show that hand gestures help us learn faster and enhance our retention.

Let’s see how “waving our hands around” affect the perception of others about us:

Hot and Cold

First, we need to understand that contrary to emblems, these hand gestures are less self-aware. They’re not completely subconscious because we still aware to the fact that we make them, but if we’re used to it, they flow naturally – they don’t require effort or thought.

But how much should I use them?

It really depends on the culture you’re from and the local customs (if you’re traveling) but keep in mind that:

  1. Gesturing too much may give the impression that you’re impulsive and not entirely in control of your actions, what might not be the best image if discretion and cool-headed attitude is required.
  2. Gesticulate too little and you come across as cold and distant person. Some may take this lack of (e)motions as a signal that you don’t care enough to really communicate with them. They will become less enthusiastic and uncomfortable with your lack of feedback and “signs of life”.

Illustrators also help us convey how we feel towards what we say, and if it’s sincere (i.e. actions match words) – we increase our credibility as good and honest speakers.

But when we say something and gesture something else, we create incongruity. If I say something is big and gesture that it’s actually small, or say “I honestly believe you” but put a hand over my mouth – I create two opposite layers of information.

In such contradictory instances the body is usually the one who tells the truth. It’s very hard to fake hand gestures because it requires full concentration and control of your actions and words at the same time. A good liar will either practice the motions and ‘feel’ of the lie, not just the words – just like an actor playing a role would OR he’ll use as little actions as possible to avoid giving himself away.

Alright, let’s see some examples:

Precision Grip

Hold the index finger with the thumb to create a small circle (the “OK gesture”). This hand gesture automatically creates an concrete, sharp and delicate flavor to your words.

It’s as if you choose your words very carefully and intentionally, like holding them between your thumb and index finger and moving them around. This was a trademark gesture of a true master in body language – Bill Clinton.

The precision grip is the new favorite of many politicians to make their point during a speech since it serves the same purpose as pointing with the index finger but the psychological effect on the viewers is much less aggressive and therefore received more positively.

I mentioned in the previous part that the thumb is a signal of dominance and superiority, but when it’s presented in this sophisticated form it looks less “threatening” and therefore the message is softer and more pleasant for the audience.

So, say you need to deliver a presentation, the precision grip might be the right tool for the job if you need to make a point, just use it instead of pointing.

Cutting air and showing knuckles

Chopping motions usually portray an aggressive and assertive attitude – you have strong feelings about the subject and you mean business.

Cutting motions with one hand landing in the palm of the other usually emphasize the words in timing with the “chop”.e.g. when saying something like I-WILL-NOT-ACCEPT-SUCH-BEHAVIOR!

The chopping motion will land with each word (or every other word) to bolster your message with authority and leave no room for argument.

Cutting motion with the hand horizontally to the side says – “NO. No way.”


Pointing in general is a tool we use to direct, to lead, to show the way or to inform others of danger or point of interest. It’s an arrow we use to control the attention of others. But as such, it’s often interpreted as condescending, aggressive, and even rude, mainly because we don’t really like when others order us around!

There are several ways to use the gesture:

  • Pointing with the index finger can be replaced by pointing with the thumb – which can be perceived even more dominating and controlling.  
  • We can also extend our pointing by using an object –  a pen, a laser stick, or any other lengthy object that will increase the range of our reach. 
  • This often gives a “productive” or focused aura to the speaker, it’s my guess that’s because in our mind he’s using a tool at the same time as he speaks – so he must be doing some effective work right?So is it good or bad to use pointers?

It depends. because this can be useful to signify important points or to set a more demanding tone, but do mind it’s use since most people won’t take it too kindly. If you do use it, make sure you have the authority (either a professional knowledge or hierarchical stand) to back it up.

Waving Finger

Waving the finger is one hand gesture you want to avoid, unless you try to give attitude. It’s extremely annoying and condescending –  we all have bad memories of a teacher or parent waving a finger to scold us, so it’s no surprise if you find the urge to grab that finger and twist it.

Waving the finger and wobbling the head has become a stigmatic trademark for dominant Latin and Afro-American  women with an attitude in the US.

A playful twist: This hand gestures can be used in flirtatious or humorous approach to tease someone, a kind of a fake scold to get attention or to provoke. “You have been very naughty” kind of thing.

Taking it to Heart

Another common gesture is to a take a palm (or both) closer to the chest. We touch the area associated with feelings- the heart, to show that we’re truthful and caring.

It’s also a way to show we take full responsibility: “I’m serious, I take this matter close to my heart”.This gesture often used during emotional circumstances, for example:When someone wins an award he chooses this gesture to show gratitude and appreciation towards the audience.
It’s a common way to display patriotism and respect in the US when hearing the hymn or at a funeral.”I’m SO sorry!”

Not my Problem

Pushing the palms away from the chest is naturally the opposite to the previous gesture and it serves two main goals:

  1. It literally pushes away anything that gets too close and sheds any hint of responsibility. The full cluster of actions involves the head turning away (the cut-off) and the hands wave to amplify the message. “No I don’t want it, get away”
  2. Honesty –  It reveals the palms of the speaker to show that he speaks truth and he got nothing to hide or do with whatever he’s asked about.A good example happens when you ask someone a question in a language he\she doesn’t understand. Waving hands and shaking heads tell you to look somewhere else, you won’t find our answer here.


When someone tries to make an argument they usually present both opposite sides, to appear more objective. By carefully looking at their hands you automatically know which side they support.

The hands form a scale, balancing the weight of each argument. People usually start by presenting what they believe the poor argument is by exposing their weaker hand, and then immediately contradict it with the opposing statement (that matches their opinion) by raising their other hand even higher!

If you think about it, that’s not how scales work, they should lower their other hand instead of raising it because that argument is actually “heavier”. But laws of physics put aside, it makes sense to raise your hand with a strong statement to show that its value is actually “higher”.

Exposing Palms

Exposing palms is one of the best and most universally recognizable hand gestures we have. It serves many purposes and it’s a part of many other gesture clusters, such as the palms-away-from-chest that I mentioned or the universal symbol for keys:

I elaborate more in depth here, but I mention this because it’s a good idea to look for signals that expose palms or hide them – they often tell us how open and honest someone feels towards us.

Make it a habit to look for palms as it really can set the tone to your interactions. If you want to be more open and honest with others don’t be afraid to show your palms, and in return they will have an easier time to open up themselves to you.

The drawback is that it might make you look as you if try to appease too much or to get approval and attention. Just like a beggar reaching out with his hand, you feel sorry and sympathetic towards him, but you don’t consider him as someone with confidence and power, right? So a good balance is often required – you want others to trust and like you, but not at the expense of your self-respect.

What are Affect Displays?

In this part we’re gonna talk about the affect displays category of kinesics. This category includes gestures that their purpose is to project a certain emotion: be it fear, anger, happiness, sadness etc etc.

Emotions are easily interpreted and expressed through our face – a mask capable of making hundreds of combinations of facial muscles that we know to recognize and associate with certain feelings. Therefore, most affect displays are naturally face expressions.

Show some love

Generally speaking – almost every gesture carries some emotional “baggage” with it – it all depends on the context in which it appears in. But to keep it simple, in these articles on affect displays I will focus on hand gestures that have little purpose besides revealing a certain emotion or setting a “tone” to whatever is being said, be it intentionally or accidentally.

In the second part we will focus specifically on attraction related gestures, how stress can be interpreted as attraction and how they’re connected. Alright let’s start with:

Rubbing Hands

The Emotion: Positive Expectancy and Excitement.

In this gesture the speed of the motion is what truly matters.Slow rubbing of hands is associated with self gain expectations, often at the expense of others.This is the classic evil genius example – slowly rubbing the hand in glee while giggling.

If on the other hand it’s a fast and excited rub of the hands – it’s a positive expectation or a general excitement. This person expects that something good is about to happen and if you’re involved you’re going to benefit from it too.

How accurate is this prediction? I won’t automatically assume that anyone who slowly rubbing his hands is planning the world domination, but it can be a warning signal that this person might not be entirely truthful if this happens during a negotiation. I’d much prefer to see the fast rubbing and share a mutual excitement.

By the way, why rub the hands in the first place?

The aim of this hand gesture is to prepare the hands for action. It warms the hands and make blood circulate faster – making them more nimble and dexterous. You can often observe such action in people who’re about to “get their hands dirty”.

It goes without saying that rubbing hands in cold weather means something else entirely – they’re cold, not expecting anything special besides a warm place to be.

Rolling up Sleeves

Emotion: Confidence, Readiness to action

Another readiness gesture is pulling up the sleeves, universally it’s an action that prepares the hands for some work – be it a fight, some manual labor or even for non-physical activities such as making a presentation.

Rolling up the sleeves, in its true purpose, keeps the sleeves from getting dirty and allows the hands move more freely. But, it’s also a assertive and high self-confidence signal, some examples:

  • Pulling sleeves before a fight is not very necessary, but it’s a warning sign that meant to frighten the opponent.
  • It’s often done before a difficult task is about to be performed – again, it can be some manual labor as lifting heavy weight starting an important lecture.
  • This action shows assertive traits by revealing muscles, especially during cold weather when it states “I’m not cold – I even roll up my sleeves”.

In general, this hand gesture is the trademark of a hard-working and goal oriented men and women.


Emotion: Positive confidence or arrogance. To make this gesture hold the fingertips of both hands together, like a prayer sign, only leave empty space between your palms. It’s a powerful expression that says something like “I feel very good about this” or  “Everything is under control”. On the plus side it reflects power, self-assurance, dominance, and clear, logical thinking. Very popular among people in authority or logical thinkers such as managers, lawyers, doctors, engineers – you can easily understand why.

On the minus side, it can be an arrogant attitude of “I know it all”, especially if backed up with gestures as tilting the head back and\or a smug face.

There’s also the inverted steeple version with your fingers pointing down – a less assertive sign that usually appears on the listener side of the conversation. It shows confidence and a calculated mind.

This hand gesture is usually something you acquire with power and social status. It’s a static and controlled , meaning you’ll rarely see it as an impulsive reaction during a conversation.

Here’s a nice video of Joe Navarro talk about the steeple gesture:

Shaking Fist

Emotion: Anger and Aggression

A fist is our natural weapon of choice – a club of skin and bones. No wonder that it’s meaning is associated with anger. If your aim is to intimidate or to inspire aggressive actions – this is the gesture for you.The act of holding the fist in the air and shaking it while speaking is a kind of power play, people use it to show decisiveness and conviction in their goal. (just like the cutting-hand gesture we discussed before)

Another version to this fist gesture you can observe often enough is the ‘fist thrust up’ – A symbol of power and aggression. It’s also a popular in opposition and resistance groups.

While these are powerful hand gestures when a strong and decisive approach is desired, but, always keep in mind that people don’t take kindly to intimidation and aggressive displays and there are consequences to such actions. Don’t play with fire if you can’t stand up the heat.

Attraction through Self-Touch Gestures


Physical attraction in body language is a whole set of signals that’s often manifested in “illogical” or “bizarre” ways.

With this in mind, let’s look at another “weird” aspect of attraction – self-touch gestures.

Such actions often reveal nervousness, insecurity or discomfort – all negative emotions. But when it comes to attraction they’re actually a good sign (if you’re the target of such displays of course).

So what special about these hand gestures?

image 40 1

They either:

  1. Stimulate the desired touch and physical intimacy. Such actions done mostly subconsciously
  2. Preening actions that suppose to emphasize our “good parts.” In both cases, the maker of such actions is usually a female who are much more adept than men in sending and receiving non-verbal cues.

What kind of gestures am I talking about? some examples:

  • Hand gestures to the face, especially touching or pulling the lips
  • Hand gestures to the neck – emphasizing its length and smoothness. it’s a submissive signal, just like a wolf exposing his throat to show his surrender to the pack leader.
  • Touching the legs – drawing attention to another very attractive feature of the female body.

How come that these same signals that often mean anxiety and tension, suddenly signal attraction? well this is possible because:

  • Physical attraction is exciting but also tense, sometimes the border between the two can be hard to identify – this is why we often attracted to a bad boy\girl attitude – they excite us even though we know it’s wrong.
  • When a female intentionally sends such signals, she wants the man to think her as vulnerable and “innocent” – what wakes strong paternal protective feeling which can be exploited.

In any case, because it can be so hard to identify whether it’s insecurity, coy, submissiveness, attraction or some mix of them, you need to be extra careful when trying to interpret such behavior.


men preening his neck tie

Preening is an interesting gesture, because it’s an action we make for others – we want to look better and more “orderly”, but it’s often a reaction to certain emotions.

The most obvious use of the preening gestures appear when we see someone attractive – we automatically try to look our best:

1. We correct or adjust our clothes

2. Remove any linen or cover stain spots.

3. Straighten up  and elevate our head

4. Increase muscle tone to appear more healthy and fit.

5. Women will flick their hair to reveal their neck and create the flowing motion of their hair.

6. Men will puff their chest up and try to appear more masculine and “manly”, they’ll even expose some muscles or use the crotch display

But preening can be also a reaction to negative events – when we hear something we don’t really like, we want to dismiss it by distracting ourselves in another action – such as pretending to preen: we pick up invisible lint, move the hand through our head or adjust our collar and tie.

These actions are not actually necessary, but they allow us a temporary relief from the negative source by maintaining a  “productive” image.

This is why if you spot someone unnecessarily picking invisible lint and looking away while you speak – you can be sure that there’s a hidden concession in that person’s mind.

Preening can also be a very natural reaction to stressful events which we will discuss in adaptors.

What are Regulators?

Regulators are a collection of expressions and gestures that help us control and understand conversations better It includes a combination of many aspects of body language such as: eye contact, touch, hand gestures, head nods or head shakes, facial expressions and vocal cues.

I know it sounds a little strange to hear that we need to regulate our conversations, because we don’t actively try to control them, right? they just seem to flow.

But the importance of regulators surfaces  up when they lack. I’m sure you know that guy\girl that just keeps interrupting others,  or on the other extreme end – someone who just makes sudden awkward pauses and you’re not sure if s\he’s done.

This problems may or may not (there can be another  psychological explanation) result from lack of understanding the use of regulators in a conversation. In simple words – whose turn is to speak and whose turn is to listen.

Learning to Listen

female putting her hands to her ear to listen better

Before we actually start talking about how hand gestures get into this whole regulation thing, I’m going to go a little of topic here because I want to speak about some very fundamental but somewhat rare skill nowadays – Paying attention.

In every conversation we have, we got time to be active and time to be passive. A certain balance between the roles of the speaker and listener is required for a healthy conversation and good rapport to exist, that’s why we need to pay attention to signals that tell us when we should continue or stop talking. Such signals are not hard to get, in fact we intuitively understand them but only if we actually look and listen to them.

I know that’s sometimes it’s boring or frustrating to listen, but if you care about the impression you leave you need to “suffer” a little for that.

After all we always have at least 2 sides to each conversation. In case of non-verbals, you want to avoid:

  1. Fidgeting and drumming fingers or feet- Impatience never been good in building rapport, and moreover, it’s actually addicting. That’s why we hate impatience gestures so much – they makes us nervous just by watching.
  2.  Playing with distractions – put down your phone.
  3.  Glancing at the clock – what’s more obvious than this to say: “you’re wasting my time”?
  4.  Putting hands behind the head – because it’s condescending, it actually shouts: “I know better than you!”

But the biggest issue is to know when to stop talking! –  Being in the speaker’s role doesn’t dismiss you from paying attention to your listener.

Don’t continue blabbing if you see that they lose interest or impatient to say something themselves, because if you do, don’t be surprised if you get the same treatment.

to sum this up: I’m sorry if this last part felt a little too obvious, but my aim wasn’t to reprimand or to judge – but to remind you of some concepts we seem to forget. K

now how to respect and be respected.

Maybe the next time you see others who seem to ignore such basic rules for honest and equal conversation, you’ll reevaluate your time and effort spent with such people.


Back to hand gestures. When we talk – our mouth isn’t the only part that moves. In fact, when we care, we make every possible effort to describe and strengthen our point of view by using gestures and tone of voice.

But even then, there are differences in how we do that, there are 2 main things that vary the frequency of such displays: social status and cultural norms.

Let’s start with social status:

Using hand gestures has an opposite correlation with status – the more you gesticulate, the less social status you have, usually.

Authoritative figures prefer to use less gestures, but more deliberate ones – to say less but to achieve more. When you gesticulate less you look distant and formal, qualities that often related with snobby and aristocratic figures.

Cultural norms have a lot to say on how and when you should use your hands to speak. In some countries it’s considered rude and aggressive to speak with your hands, in others (Italy is a famous example) you can barely insert a word if you don’t use your hands.

Because there’s such variety I cannot write a specific guide to when and how much should you use hand gestures – but using your own judgment and keeping in mind such factors you can get along just fine.

Remember: what you consider rude may just be the standard for others.  Be smart – learn to adapt rather than being insulted or angry by other’s customs.

Feedback Signals

I talked about that we need to pay attention to our listener, so that we’ll know when and where to speak, but now let’s talk about signals that can help us understand their frame of mind.

After all, what’s the point of continue blabbing around if our listener has lost interest? or entirely disagrees with us?

For simplicity sake I decided to separate such signals into to 2 main categories, but keep in mind that in reality such clusters of gestures can be mixed or appear one right after the other.

The 2 main aspects are:

  • Attention – Is the listener bored, faking attention or truly interested?
  • Evaluation – Is the message is getting through, how positive or negative is the reaction?


The most basic feedback of attention we have is eye contact – when our listener keeps eye contact with us we know he’s paying attention, but we have one expression that gives away a “forced attention” = Boredom.

Let’s face it, oftentimes we don’t have the option to get away from encounters we don’t like: be it the 100th time our relative tell the same old story in a family gathering or when we must attend a stuffy meeting or a dull lecture.

Out of politeness, respect or fear we keep the attention – we maintain eye contact.But.. since we know it’s going to be long and tedious we may as well get relaxed, right?  

So we put our head on a pedestal, our hand, and wait comfortably for the speech’s end.

I mention this expression of boredom because it isn’t always that obvious – sometimes the hand-supporting-chin is interpreted as attention signal, although it’s done more out of politeness than true concern.

It’s a passive position, in a truly engaging conversation the listener will be tuned and animated – if he’ll use a hand-to-face gesture it would be putting the index finger near the temple or stroking chin, he won’t just sit there with a blank expression waiting for you to be done.

By the way, what is boredom and can it be..useful? find out more in this not-boring video of Vsouce:


When the listener is faced with a problem or a need to decide upon a proposition he automatically starts to evaluate the situation and how he should approach it.

To get a more accurate we should split this into 2 phases:

1.  The listening and analyzing data phase – in this step there are many signals that can help determine the general attitude of the listener:

  • Folding arms or legs?
  • Attentive or not? (what we just talked about, but don’t forget eye contact and head gestures)
  • Hand to face gestures – index fingers resting on the temple signify a deep thought process, but if it’s crossing the mouth or resting on the opposite cheek (while the rest of the hand covering the chin) – it’s more of a critical-negative evaluation, he’s in doubt.
  • How relaxed or nervous is s/he? -look for fidgeting and nervous actions.

2) The second phase is the actual decision time. The listener has heard the proposal and now it’s his turn to come to an immediate decision. This step doesn’t always occurs, because it’s role is to stall the answer.

In this step you’ll see actions that suppose to allow the listener a few more seconds to contemplate before making a final decision.

They include:

  • Chin Stroking
  • Chewing objects
  • Scratching (especially the face)
  • Stroking face or neck – pacifying behavior
  • Preening
  • Lighting a cigarette

Suppose you try to make a convincing argument/sales pitch – how can you utilize what we just discussed?

How and when to engage your listener?

As always, it depends – if you see positive signals during the evaluation phase, your listener is engaged and open with you, all you need to do is wait during the decision phase and you can safe that the reaction would be positive.

If on the other hand you see negative signals during the evaluation phase, it’s time to change your strategy:

  • Try a different verbal approach
  • If their body is closed – try to open them by offering them something to hold or to do – Remember that the longer they stay in closed position the more fortified they will be in their thoughts.
  • If they’re impatient or seem disinterested – change your tempo or engage them by asking a question. Get them involved!
  • Change the environment. Of course it depends on the available accommodations and the setting, but generally you want a noise-free environment.

If you arrived to the decision phase and you observe negative signals – you better intervene quickly before the actual “no” is said.

It’s very hard to reverse verbal decisions because people don’t like to appear fickle minded – they tend to stick with what they already said.

What are Adaptors?

The role of such actions is to: make us more comfortable, release excess energy, pacify nervousness or shift weight to change posture. That’s why they’re called adaptors – they adapt our body to a more calibrated and comfortable state.

Adaptors are actions that happen almost entirely unaware – we never think about them and we rarely notice if we even make them.

This attribute makes adaptors a very honest channel of information, although many times also very useless.

  1. We can identify tension and nervousness from such gestures. We can also discover “hot spots” – key moments during an interaction that signal suppressed feelings or thoughts.
  2. They can help us reveal deceit. and I don’t specifically mean lying, it also includes exaggeration, shame, doubt and uncertainty. Such negative feelings inspire nervous actions that require some sort of pacifying behavior we can learn to spot.
  3. They can be utterly meaningless – shifting weight or scratching the ear might be a simple reaction to physical uneasiness that has nothing to do with feelings or attitude.

This ambiguity in adaptors is the reason why we need to be extra careful when analyzing such gestures. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming too much or relying too heavily on a single nervous expression. Never be quick to judge others, especially if you believe they’re being dishonest.

Pinocchio Effect – Revealing Deceit

First of all I want to clarify that when I speak of deceit it doesn’t necessarily mean lying. It includes doubt, exaggeration, not telling the whole story and white lies.

It’s important to accept that there’s no such thing as a sign that means “I’m lying right now” – we’re not that stupid after all..

What we can do is to identify if there is a negative body language, and from that point try to discover it’s source.

It’s not easy, as interrogators around the world can admit, but with practice and patience you can often get to the bottom and reveal the truth.

Let’s start with hand gestures that help us identify negative body language.

In general, it includes any action that touches part of the head or face:

  • Touching or covering the mouth creates a barrier, as if the person tries to prevent  himself from speaking or hearing lies.
  • Pulling the earlobe can be a signal that we don’t like what we hear (it can be our own lie we don’t like).
  • Rubbing the eye to avoid eye contact, in more obvious cases it will include looking down or away.
  • Lightly touching the nose – the nose can itch in discomfort during a lie. Pinocchio’s nose grew – ours only itch.
  • Fake cough 
  • Rubbing the forehead, the temple or the neck.

How to distinguish between a physical “itch” or a pacifying behavior?

In both cases there is a physical irritation that leads to touching the face, but if it’s only an itch – you’ll have a few deliberate scratches to really satisfy it.

In the case of psychological tension the self-touch would be quicker and lighter, not really “hitting the spot”.
When you see such gestures, don’t assume automatically there’s deceit, but instead open your eyes for more clusters of negative body language. You’re building a case, so better get your facts right.

Getting to the bottom

So we identified what we believe is a pacifying behavior. What’s next? how to know what’s the problem?

It requires careful observation and “taking in the whole picture” approach to truly identify what sort of deceit (if any) there is. All you know is that the action of touching the face is a natural reaction that tries to suppress negative feelings or events.

Man covering his eyes, ears and mouth

Now your strategy involves looking for  hot spots = specific moments when such negative hand gestures occur, what can hint on the source of the problem.

Some examples:

  • Covering the mouth while hearing bad news is a natural reaction to such events, there’s no deceit here, but tension, fear and sadness.
  • Touching the mouth when asked a specific personal question indicates that the interviewee feels uneasiness answering that question and might  not be entirely open or honest about it.
  • If the listener believes he hears lies he can manifest self touch behavior in  response – he doesn’t lie himself, but his exposure to lies puts him in discomforted position.

Your best strategy to truly uncover dishonesty is actually continue to act normally and investigate further without arousing suspicion or accusing anyone. This way you have more opportunities to identify “hot spots” (or to confirm them), just ask casually a follow-up question when you identify a hot-spot and watch if your interview squirm.


When we experience fear, frustration, anticipation or restlessness, our body tense up and build energy as part of our freeze, flight or fight natural response.

We prepare the body for an emergency reaction, but without a specific purpose this energy creates impatience and we waste it on meaningless activities like touching the face, drumming the fingers, tapping the leg on the floor and many other useless actions. Hand gestures to the face can be a result of such tension.

Signals such as biting fingernails and clasping the hands around the head also reveal emotional tension. These are very comforting actions because they are reminiscent of our infancy period.

Our parents held our head in their arms and we sucked the thumb (which is a reminiscent action of breastfeeding actually). That’s why it’s an automatic response for some people when facing a lot of emotional stress.

Some other examples of emotional distress are:

  • Covering the face or part of it usually comes with shame and embarrassment, for own sake or someone else’s (like when hearing an embarrassing story of a friend).
  • Slapping the forehead or the neck is a self-punishing act, usually for the “crime” of forgetting.
  • Smoking – an alternative stimulation for sucking the thumb.
  • Pulling the lips can be an alternative to biting them. It’s a childish gesture that gives an innocent and naive impression.

Bill Clinton loved to use it to arouse more sympathy towards him in his troubled times. Interestingly enough, biting the lips can be used as an arousing flirtatious act because it bestirs paternal or maternal emotions.

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
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