25 Jan 2023

A handy guide to social interaction

Much has been written about what to do with your hands when you are speaking in public, but you also need to be aware of your hands during everyday social and professional interactions. Many of us are conscious of our hands and not quite sure where to put them. If you are prone to expansive sweeping hand gestures and much given to waving your hands about other people may find you over-dramatic and exaggerated, and therefore conclude you are untrustworthy. Conversely, if you keep your hands firmly by your sides like a soldier on duty, you will appear stiff and unapproachable.

We are all aware that our body posture and facial expressions are vitally important when it comes to interaction, conveying a range of complex emotions and social dynamics. Never underestimate the power of the hands to create feelings of conviction, confidence and communication, but also be conscious of the ways in which hands can send negative messages.

Manual Mistakes

Standing with your hands in your pockets is considered by many cultures to be extremely rude. It looks studiedly over-casual and disrespectful. It is understandably tempting to tuck your hands safely away in your pockets but try to avoid falling into the trap – if you’re prone to this mistake, choose clothes without pockets or with small or stitched pockets that cannot accommodate your hands.

When they don’t know what to do with their hands, most people touch their faces. Since the Covid pandemic we have all become increasingly aware of that touching our eyes, nose and mouth may significantly increase our vulnerability to infections. But many of us are unaware of the number of times per hour we rub our eyes, pass our hands over our faces, stroke our chins, fiddle with our facial hair and so on. Apart from being unsanitary, these gestures are distracting and disturbing, sometimes reaching a level where they begin to look very much like facial tics.

Alternatively, people who are at a loss when it comes to dealing with their hands all too often turn in on themselves, obsessively picking at their cuticles, or cleaning their nails. Fiddling with your hands is extremely distracting and can be truly off-putting for some onlookers.

Keep Calm

Try and keep your hands relaxed, so avoid tightly gripping your hands together, wringing your hands or clenching your fists, which will make you look very stressed. Hands that shake or rhythmically drumming fingers instantly convey feelings of nervousness and tension.

Sitting Down

If you are seated in a chair, loosely clasp your hands together and place them in your lap, or let your forearms and hands rest lightly on the armrests.

If you are seated in front of a desk or table, rest your elbows and forearms on the desk in front of you and loosely clasp your hands together. Alternatively, if you want to look poised and pensive, rest your elbows on the desk and steeple your fingers together. Resting your chin on your open hand, with your fingers framing your face, will make you look as if you are listening intently.

Standing Up

If you are standing up and talking, for example at a party, the most relaxing position for your hands is loosely clasped in front of you with your elbows slightly bent. Resist the temptation to cross your arms and tuck your hands safely out of sight. This will certainly prevent you from making over-expansive hand gestures, but the overall impression it gives can be defensive (if your posture is stooped) or aggressive and confrontational (if you are standing up very straight).

Remember, if you feel self-conscious about your hands and are worried about a tendency to over-gesticulate or look nervous, you can always use a prop, such as a glass of wine, a mobile or tablet, or a notebook to occupy your hands and keep them out of harm’s way.

Gestures, when they are not over-employed, can be extremely eloquent. A downward-chopping, open-palmed movement instantly conveys emphasis, while holding out your hands, open-palmed at hip height, communicates genuine belief and honesty. Everyone uses gestures, and you probably already have your own repertoire, which serve to reinforce your verbal communication. Just be aware that the optimum zone for hand gestures when you are standing up is from the shoulders to the hips; if your hands stray well outside the zone you will begin to look theatrical and histrionic, and people will be more transfixed by your over-expansive gestures than by what you are saying.

On Screen

Video calls, with their clear focus on your head and shoulders, may leave you feeling very exposed and scrutinised. Communication is primarily based on facial expressions and voice; be aware that hand gestures may appear to be intrusive and over-use of them will soon become very apparent.

If you have your elbows on the desk in front of your screen, you may occasionally visibly steeple your fingers, or use your hands for emphasis, but don’t let gestures extend any higher than the lower half of your face. Above all, be hyper-aware of touching your face – it will make you look shifty and nervous.

If in doubt, place your hands on the desk in front of you or in your lap and keep them there.

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