Holding Hands: Just Friends or More?

Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


Table of Contents

Hi there, today we’re going to talk about holding hands. What can we truly tell from it?

Eye contact is usually the first link in almost any human interaction, but the first physical contact will probably involve the touch of hand to hand. It’s usually the initial physical contact to reveal positive intentions and establish some intimacy and trust.

When we reach our hand in greetings we acknowledge the person before us and show some confidence in them, in return we expect to receive the same treatment. This is why handshakes (and how they’re done)  play such a vital part in business meetings – we want to feel that we can trust the other guy to make a deal.

To hold hands with our loved one is the “advanced form” for that matter – it shows more permanent fondness, rapport, respect, concern, trust and perhaps romantic feelings.

But as many things in body language, this expression of affection is not that simple. It seems to us that it’s OK to hold one’s  hand but not the other, even if we like them both very much. E.g. An heterosexual man in the western culture will almost never hold hands with another man, that’s why the photo of George W Bush holding hands with the Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hit waves in the US, but was received calmly in the Arab culture.

In this article we will do the explanations. What does it mean to hold hands in different contexts and of course, how can we apply it in our daily lives.

Romance and Affection

The most obvious meaning for this gesture is the involvement of romance.

You might remember the anxious anticipation to hold the hand of your first girl\boyfriend. It was the next ‘big step’ to reveal if they really like you and want you around. Absurd images of rejection probably went through your mind as you tentatively and very consciously wrapped your hand around theirs. Insignificant and stupid as it might look today, it was probably your first attempt in building romantic physical intimacy.

Today, I assume that  it comes much more naturally and easily than in the first time, but the effects and benefits of holding hands are still relevant even if you’re married for years. Why?

1. It releases Oxytocin – an hormone that cements long term relationship and raises the amount of affection in a couple.

2. If you’re already in one such happy relationship then holding hands has a reassuring effect by reducing stress hormones. You can read this study that involves happy couples, electrical shocks and holding hands (bizarre I know!) to demonstrate this effect. 

3. Holding hands is a declaration of devotion to each other. When a couple is going hand in hand in public they send a message to others around that they are together, not up for grabs.

4. Great for rapport. Rapport in body language is built around mirror imagining – matching each other’s gestures and posture. When someone is acting like us (in a subtle fashion, not mimicking us!) we tend to like them more. It’s only natural to like people who are similar to us because it makes us feel good about ourselves.

In this case, both individuals have to match their walking speed and rhythm of movement in order to walk comfortably.

Is interlocking fingers better?

Generally speaking yes, it’s more physically and emotionally bonding than simply walking hand in hand. But it doesn’t apply to everyone, some people just uncomfortable doing it.

What if I don’t like it?

And since we mentioned discomfort – let’s remember that not everyone is comfortable holding hands in public. This can be a result of physical or emotional issues as:

  • Feeling embarrassment to show affection in public.
  • Avoid looking ‘too committed’ – this doesn’t necessarily mean lack of devotion, but can be a sign for a ‘free spirit’ type of personality who like their own space.
  • Plain physical discomfort – like sweaty\cold hands or big height difference..

If this is the case in your relationship, don’t feel bad about it or try “forcing” your insignificant other to hold hands. Instead, try other forms of holding each other while walking (see in the next page) or just give it some time and understanding, sometimes it can take time to get used to it.

Support, Guidance and Authority

Another use for hands holding is to guide and protect others who are less able or confident than us:We take our children by the hand to lead them so they won’t get lost and to let them feel safe with us.

We support older people in their walk. Or help a blind man cross the street.

We take someone by the hand when we pass through the crowd so  we won’t get separated

When offer our hand for support when our loved ones feel threatened or distressed.

Note: The person with the hand on top is the one who’s leading. You can’t pull and direct with your hand stuck behind. Next time you hold hands, even while sitting, try switching positions and see how that feels (probably awkward). This say one thing or 2 about your relationship.

In all of these scenarios (and many others) the hands holding is used to reassure and protect the person we hold.

BUT, there is a difference between guiding and urging someone to follow. In the latter, we dominate the other person and use our authority to make him go with us. How is that manifested in body language?

What’s the difference between forcing and guiding?

There’s a difference, a tiny one, but significant – as it changes the whole picture. What’s the catch? Just as in physics, when we apply force – we get resistance:

By holding and pulling someone’s hand you create natural resistance. Even if that person wishes to go the same way as you, he automatically feels forced to do so because you urge him to follow. And most people dislike being forced to do anything, even if you believe it’s for their own good.

Moreover, the more force you put – the more resistance you add, If you pull harder they will resist harder. Just like you would resist strongly to a sudden leash jerk of your dog.

Catching at the wrist is even a more aggressive and violent variation for this “lead”. E.g. A child being dragged to the principal’s office.

How to guide well then? Remove force:

1. Try to avoid pulling at all but rather match your walking speed. If you’re in a hurry, explain that to your partner so s/he will get the message and start to walk faster with you. In the worst case scenario – just break the contact and start moving faster, this way you’re not forcing anyone to follow you, but letting them decide if to do so or not.

2. When making a turn, angle your body first towards the direction, and if they didn’t get the hint point the other party gently with a sleight touch on the hand, the back or the shoulders.

Example: When I was an instructor in school and needed to take a misbehaving child to the principal’s office, I knew that dragging him there would be a bad idea – he’ll just pull back and resist in his full might. Instead I matched my walking speed to his own and held his hand while talking to him. This way I managed to calm him and let him feel that he’s not being forced to follow me so he don’t need to resist.

Respect and Friendship 

So, holding hands is a sign for affection and love, but can we use it with platonic friends? Or is it reserved for couples only?

Well, it depends on whom you’ll ask. Some friends may feel comfortable enough walking hand in hand without worrying about romantic complication, but they still will be perceived as a romantic couple by observers.

When it comes to same sex friendship – things get a little trickier. In the western culture, it’s acceptable for girls or little children to hold hands as a sign of friendship, but it’s taboo for heterosexual males.

This is not the case in Arab and other African and south Asian cultures.

In these places, this gesture and others (like kissing on the cheek in greetings between men)  is a sign for mutual respect and deep friendship, without any sexual connotations.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that all males friends stroll hand in hand on the street, but simply that this gesture is perceived differently than in the rest of the world.

Why the difference?

The main reason is segregation of the sexes in these regions.

Men and women have little interaction in their daily live and it’s inappropriate to show affection towards each other in public. What leads to the fact that most males spend a lot of time together instead of mingling with women. This of course leads to greater intimacy between men and to the existence of such customs.

Note: In many Arab countries this is a slowly fading custom due to globalization effects and less rigid segregation between males and females.

Another reason is the “awakening” of homosexual movements and awareness in the western world. Even very good heterosexual males will avoid showing intimacy between each other so they won’t be perceived as homosexuals.

So, we can’t really blame Bush for being ‘too intimate’ with the Crown Prince Abdullah (who now is king, by the way). He was simply being diplomatic, even if a bit awkward for his own nation to watch.

Ways to show you care

While holding hands can be a fun and bonding experience, sometimes it’s not the best option: Sweaty hands or cold dead fingers can make holding hands a strained affair. Plus, as we saw, not all people like it, for this or that reason.

This why I present to you 2 other alternatives to holding hands, which carry pretty much the same context:

Holding at the Waist or Shoulders

This is actually the mobile version of the hug (link). More common in young couples who just can’t leave the hands from each other.

The couple will wrap their hands around the waist or shoulder area and move as one. In some cases it’s even acceptable to walk with the hand in the back pocket, almost as grabbing the ass on the move.

Do notice when it’s a not reciprocal gesture. It may indicate that the other partner doesn’t feel as committed or s/he’s forced to the interaction.

Holding Arms

This is the classic “sophisticated” European version to hands holding. The male will offer his arm to his lady as a hook to hang on her hand\s.

This gesture considered to be more classy and platonic than the usual hands holding and it can be used even between platonic friends.

Holding arms can also be utilized in group settings to show solid unity between the members. T

his why you can observe it often in protests – it’s a powerful display with a lot of presence and sense of purpose, everyone is locked with each other as a single unbreakable front.


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