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Communicating with your hands

Updated on October 28, 2014

Eyes are the windows to your soul and hands are where a person's character lies.


While our head is where our intelligence resides and our heart is our emotional center, hands are the “workers” that accomplish what the head and the heart signal.

Writers have long examined the head and the heart, but many have overlooked the importance of our hands.

We use our hands not only to accomplish tasks, but to express our feelings. What would life be like if we couldn’t stroke a lover’s face or hold a child’s hand or swat an insect or type words or gesture as we speak or gesticulate in place of speech?

Hands are our tools. With them we eat, drive, text, write, read, type, tie our shoes, caress, express anger, etc.

It’s hard to imagine what our life would be like without our fingers and our hands.

Hold up your hand and examine it. Sprouting from your palm are five fingers, like branches of a tree. These branches radiate out and connect us with the world. It’s our fingers that do the caressing and typing. And our fingers make most of our gestures. They also touch another person when we shake hands.


Babies use hand gestures

Fingers are important to infants. They reach out and touch things and explore their world. They also use their digits to communicate. Babies point at an object and get their desires across without the use of words.

A 2009 University of Chicago study reports that the more gestures babies make at 14 months, the bigger their vocabularies will be. As we grow we still rely on gestures (i.e. waving, pointing and using fingers to indicate numbers).

Before people developed an alphabet we were able to communicate using non-verbal means. We still rely on these silent means of communication today.

Over the years we've developed a series of unique gestures

Gestures play an important role in conjunction with the spoken word, but they also impart messages by themselves.

They allow people to communicate over distances where a voice might not carry or when noise interferes with our words. Popular gestures often have interesting origins. Many can be traced back to the Greeks, Romans or to the Middle Ages when trading began. Most of these traders could not read or write so to complete their transactions they used a system of gestures.

Coming: Using gestures to control your electronic devices

First it was the Nintendo Wii, then Microsoft's Xbox Kinect which allowed people to interact with games using human gestures or movements. With full-body gaming there was no need for controllers.

Technological advances aren’t stopping there. Companies are researching how to you can easily control your TV, AC or your tablet with hand movements.

“Any potentially Wi-FI-enabled electronic device in your house can become gesture-sensitive and controllable from just about anywhere in your home," reports "So with little more than a wave of the hand, users will be able to turn lights on or off from the couch, raise the volume of the TV from the next room, or open the garage before you get outside.”

If you’re worried about a hacker taking control of your electronic devices Techhive says these systems will be protected by a gesture password – a series of unique moves you record.

Let’s examine some hands gestures.

THUMBS UP: Curl your fingers into a fist and stick your thumb up and it means OK, approval or success. (Turn it downward and it indicates disapproval, bad or failure.)

Historians trace the thumbs up gesture to World War II pilots, who relied on it because their roaring engines drowned out their voices. A quick thumbs up allowed them to communicate to their ground crew that all was well or “good to go.”

HITCHHIKING THUMB: During the 1920s, when the automobile exploded on the U.S. landscape, advertising along roadways used a pointing thumb to symbolize a directional arrow. When people began hitchhiking they mirrored this and pointed their thumbs toward their intended route.

Newspapers called them “thumb-pointers” and “thumb-jerkers" and there were quite a few along U.S highways. The New York Times reported on Sept. 18, 1927 that motorists on the two major east-west U.S. routes, “the Lincoln Highway and the National Old Trail, … have come to learn with more or less tolerance that it’s impossible to journey long before being hailed by a hitch-hiker.”

Be careful where you stick your thumb up outside of the U.S. In much of the Middle East, Latin America, Greece, Russia, West Africa and south Italy thumbs up means the same as the middle finger.


MIDDLE FINGER: We all know that thrusting your middle finger in the air tells the target of the gesture “f_ck you” or “f_ck yourself.” The finger is an obscene gesture throughout most of the Western world. And it has many names: “flipping off,” “flipping the bird,” “giving the finger” or “the one-finger salute.”

"It's one of the most ancient insult gestures known," anthropologist Desmond Morris told the BBC.

The middle finger is seen as a symbol of the penis and the curled fingers on either side are the testicles. When you gesture it you’re showing a crude phallic to someone.

There are numerous stories about the origin of the finger (going back as far as 2500 years). It may have started with the Greeks or perhaps it originated with perverse Roman emperors or 15th century English archers. The latter may have the most credence.

The English army included skilled longbowmen, who used their middle finger when firing their longbows made from the wood of the English Yew tree. Prior to a 1415 battle, the French army announced they would cut off the middle fingers of the English soldiers they captured. The French believed that archers without “the” finger would be incapable of accurately firing their longbows.

The classic yew English longbow

The act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking the yew" or "pluck yew." After the English defeated the French in that battle they mocked their enemy by waving their middle fingers and saying, "See, we can still pluck yew! PLUCK YEW!" Do you see a similarity with that phrase and the one associated today with bird flipping?

Dr. Morris believes Italians, who are renowned for gesturing, brought this obscene hand gesture to the U.S. when they immigrated here.

Baseball players, who are seen on TV making all kinds of crude gestures, play an important role in the one-finger salute history. The first photograph to capture the display of a middle digit occurred in 1886. As a joint team photo was taken of the Boston Beaneaters and the rival New York Giants, a Boston pitcher pointed the offensive finger toward the New York team.

Local, state and U.S. courts prosecute bird flippers, especially if it's directed at a police officer. Although a digit displayer may spend a night in jail he/she is not likely to serve time in prison. Higher courts usually reverse middle finger convictions on appeal, because the gesture is protected as a form of free speech.

NUMBER 1: Our culture is interesting. If you move over one digit and stick your index finger in the air you’re signaling triumph, instead of “plucking yew." This is usually associated with a sports team being the best or “Number 1.” When not at a sporting contest, this gesture means “wait one minute” or “hold on.”


THE V SHAPE: Success is also gestured when you raise your index and middle finger forming a "V." Winston Churchill ► flashed this "V" for “victory” gesture during World War II. Twenty years later, Vietnam War protesters and hippies adopted these two digits as a symbol of peace.

Just make sure your palm is facing out when you make this gesture. If you give the “V” with your knuckles showing to the people of Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand it's the same as flipping them off.

THE COOL V: If you hold both your index finger and pinkie aloft it means you’re a lover of rock and roll. Most authorities today say this gesture means “rock on.” While this late 20th century gesture is originally associated with the devil's horns, most people today use both hands pointed toward each other to look "cool" or “bad,” especially in selfies.

OK SYMBOL: Form a circle with your thumb and index finger and you tell someone “OK” or correct. Some say this gesture began with skin divers. The theory is they couldn’t use the thumbs up gesture because it would have been confused with a signal for “Go up.” Instead, most historians say this gesture can be traced back centuries to jewelers. It involves the way jewelers use their fingers when they examine a precious stone. Gem dealers hold the rock between their thumb and index finger and move it back and forth in front of the light to check for flaws. People eventually associated these two circular formed fingers to mean the gem was “OK” or everything was “OK.”


AIR QUOTE: The modern gesture known as the “air quote” involves the use of two hands. You create facsimile quotation marks with your index and middle fingers held up on both hands and then quickly bent down and up at least twice. This is done to highlight a spoken word or phrase, sometimes to indicate a sarcastic comment.

We can trace this gesture back to a 1979 TV game show “Celebrity Charades.” It was used by contestants to communicate to their partners that the phrase they were miming was a quote.

Handshaking plays an important role when greeting people


Greeting someone is an important part of our culture. People greet each other as a sign of recognition, affec-tion and/or friendship. The greeting act is so significant that the two parties touch each other.

In the U.S. and most of the Western world, the most widely recognized means of greeting is shaking hands, which involves simultaneously grasping the other person's hand and briefly moving them up and down.

Throughout history the handshake gesture has been a sign of friendship, an expression of gratitude or congratulations. It’s also used to seal a verbal contract or a bet. Many historians believe the handshake was originally used as a show of peace. Warriors would grip each other’s hands to demonstration that they were not concealing weapons and they meant no harm to each other.

A quick lesson: The meaning of different types of greetings

The handshake is very important when meeting people for the first time, especially men. It’s part of making a good first impression.

People evaluate a man’s character according to the firmness of his handshake. A firm handshake shows confidence and power, while a weak or limp handshake imparts coldness, weakness and uncertainty. A vice-grip, crushing handshake should be avoided because the person comes across as domineering or too forceful.

In the 1960s, the era's dominant youth culture created variant handshakes known as dap. Hands were slid together in different fashions. Sometimes people went through a complicated routine of shakes, slaps and chest bumps known by both parties. The modified handshake that had the most impact on our culture was the “high five.” This favorite of celebrating athletes involves hitting each other’s open palm raised above the shoulder.

Health concerns may replace the handshake with the fist bump


In the late 20th century, early 21st century, the fist bump greeting was added to the mix. This alternative handshake, probably invented by athletes who wanted to minimize the risk of a high five dislocating a finger, involves the two parties curling their fingers into fists and tapping or bumping them together.

Healthy authorities have endorsed the use of the fist bump, instead of hand-shaking. Most germs, such as the flu, are passed from one person's palms to the others during handshaking.

Evidence has been mounting that hands are the culprit in spreading diseases. This has led health authorities to look at the possibility of ending the reign of the unsanitary handshake.


© 2014 Thomas Dowling


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    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 

      3 years ago from Minnesota

      Some people use hand gestures so much they seem almost animated to watch. Interesting topic to up vote!

    • justmesuzanne profile image


      3 years ago from Texas

      Interesting treatment of cultural hand gestures. I am fluent in American Sign Language and have really noticed the different mental processes that go along with communicating manually. I have had situations in which I was telling a hearing person about a conversation I had with a deaf person and found myself signing to myself in order to recall what was said!

      I recently broke my wrist and am using fingerspelling and counting practice as part of my rehab. I hope to be able to sign fluently again one day since it is an important part of my thought processes.

      Voted up and interesting! :)

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      3 years ago from Florida

      Thanks seraphic for your positive comments. I do like French fries, French toast and French kisses. I guess we can add French hand gesturers to that list.



    • seraphic profile image


      3 years ago from Canada

      I loved this HUB! As a person of French / Mix descent I know our family expresses more with hand gestures when they are speaking, it is like a second language (the occasional bird-flip happens). You would have some fun hanging out with a few french people, perhaps even add to your list of gestures!

      You have written a perfect Hub!

    • fpherj48 profile image


      3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      You are forgiven....LOL......I really enjoyed your hub!

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      3 years ago from Florida

      A THOUSAND PARDONS fpherj48 (Paula).

      You were so kind with your glowing words of praise, like "interesting, useful, awesome and intriguing." And, "I truly enjoyed every word." I guess my stability meter prevented me from reading your 1st comment so my head wouldn't swell to the size of a beach ball.

      I'm very appreciative of your remarks.



    • fpherj48 profile image


      3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      thomas......a-HEM! you skipped right past me. Are you trying to make me feel bad? LOL

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      3 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for the kind words, MHiggins.

    • MHiggins profile image

      Michael Higgins 

      3 years ago from Michigan

      Very interesting info! I enjoyed reading this. I never thought about the hand gestures too much until now. Congrats on HOTD

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      3 years ago from Florida

      pstraubie48 and DzyMsLizzy:

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

      • pst... Does "Angels are on the way to you ps" refer to the bible passage: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you"?

      •Dzy... I've never heard of nor seen the "Italian" hand-and-arm gesture.

      Get prepared. The hand shake is slowly transitioning to the fist bump. As contagious diseases continue to spread around the world there will be less shakes and more bumps. (No! That's not a dance from the 60s!)


    • fpherj48 profile image


      3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Thomas......I voted this wonderful hub UP, interesting, useful & awesome. I truly enjoyed every word. It's all so intriguing and makes your reader really focus on "all about hands".....You're right that we don't really think about the importance, usefulness and necessity .....we just take most things for granted. I could make use of that sculpture quite well sometimes! LOL UP+++ Thanks for this awesome work! Peace, Paula

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD!

      This was very interesting. I've also heard of a whole hand-and-arm gesture, which I was told originated in Italy, considered the equivalent of flying the bird. The right hand, closed into a fist, reaching across and slapping the bicep of the left arm, as that arm as bent (toward the gesturer's face,) at the elbow, fist closed. If true, then this larger gesture would serve as more visible than 'the finger' over a greater distance between people who were arguing.

      I enjoyed this article, and the videos were informational and entertaining, respectively.

      One time, when my husband was in the emergency room, one of the doctors came in and offered and explained the 'fist bump' thing. I guess it makes sense, but it still seems a bit "youth culture" to this old lady.

      Voted up, interesting, awesome and useful.

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      3 years ago from Florida

      aesta1, mySuccess8 and heidithorne:

      Thanks for the supportive words. The catalyst for this Hub was Cleveland Browns QB Johnny Manziel, who stirred things up during a pre-season game when he flashed the bird at the opposing team. It got me thinking. Why is one finger vulgar and offensive while the neighboring finger is not? Our culture is so interesting.



    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      3 years ago from sunny Florida

      We often laugh that some of us (me included) could not communicate if our hands were tied behind our backs. We 'talk' as much with them as not.

      Congrats on HOTD.... well done

      Angels are on the way to you ps

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Super interesting! These are so ingrained in our culture that we often forget how they got started. Big congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • mySuccess8 profile image


      3 years ago

      We use and adjust our different communication styles, like oral, written and body language, for different situations and audience, for greater effectiveness of interactions. You have picked, and well-researched one of the most common non-verbal communication styles, which uses hand gestures. Very interesting and informative content. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Interesting information. Gestures are really important in communication. We have learned that through gestures we can be understood wherever we go. Some gestures have become iconic. Really enjoyed reading your hub.

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      4 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for the good words, Writer Fox.

      Peace -TD

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      You've certainly collected a lot of unusual information here! One thing I have noticed, all mammals have faces and ears and eyes and noses. Only humans have hands. Enjoyed and voted up!

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      4 years ago from Florida

      Hey RonEFran. It's good to heard from you.

      RE Thumbs up: I found this and another website that said the Roman gladiator story was apocryphal.

      RE Fist bump replacing the handshake:. I understand what your saying, but it looks we are headed down that path.

      Peace. -TD

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Interesting article. I've always thought the thumbs up/down sign went back to the gladiator games in the Roman empire, where it could signal life or death for a participant. I wonder if that's historically accurate. As to fist bumps replacing handshakes: I do find myself more conscious of the germ-transference potential of a handshake. But that just means I make sure to wash my hands when I get home. A fist bump as a greeting just doesn't work for me. Too impersonal.


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