7 Aug 2022

What do your hand gestures mean?

The powerful impact of hand gestures in communication is often overlooked. Research indicates that people who use hand gestures tend to be viewed as warm, agreeable and energetic, whereas people who do not gesticulate very much are seen as cold and analytical.

Gestures are clearly linked to speech and in fact can help to clarify thought, enabling people to formulate coherent notions and speak in a clearer, more declarative language. Gestures are often used to underscore points that are being made, and thus can help us to understand what is being communicated. The more energetic gestures the more passion they seem to convey.

Sometimes, however, gestures do not align with what we’re actually saying, and this can induce feelings of confusion or mistrust. They can also appear to be too exaggerated – flailing arms and sweeping hand gestures can look out of control and distracting, especially if you are on Zoom, where tics, gestures and facial expressions are all objects of forensic focus.

What are your hand gestures revealing?

• Opening your hands with your palms at a 45-degree angle indicates that you are being honest and open.

• Palms facing each other with fingers steepled indicates that you are thoughtful and authoritative.

• Hands clasped together in front of you indicate that you are nervous and tentative.

• Hands fiddling with hair, face, beard etc express palpable feelings of anxiety.

• Sweeping, expansive hand gestures convey that you are talking about a large idea or concept, but if your gestures are consistently exaggerated you will look chaotic and undisciplined.

• If you do not use your hands at all you may come across as disengaged and disinterested.

Hand Gestures and Public Speaking

Inevitably, our hands come under close scrutiny when we are speaking in public, or presenting. Hand gestures can be deployed to reinforce our message and to send subliminal messages of conviction and confidence. They can be invaluable tools in communicating our ideas to our audience, but there is also a risk that they will undermine what we are trying to say or betray our nerves.

• Occasionally reinforce your message with explicatory hand gestures, but don’t do it too often or it will look over-rehearsed. For example, if you are talking about a small number

you can pinch your fingers together; conversely, a large number or important point can be expressed by opening the arms out wide. Use your fingers to indicate numbers below five – this simple gesture will lodge in the minds and memory of your audience.

• Holding your open palms outstretched towards the audience is a great way of conveying honesty and integrity. It subliminally indicates that you have nothing to hide.

• Keep your hand gestures to the sweet spot, the area between your hips and shoulders, if possible. If your hand gestures do not stray beyond this zone you will not run the risk of looking over-excited, out of control, or disorganised.

• Try not to point. It’s tempting to do so if you are making an emphatic pronouncement, especially one that relates directly to the audience, but it looks aggressive and will make your audience recoil. If possible try to reinforce your point by making a short chopping motion with an open-palmed hand – it will feel less combative.

• If you feel you’ve lapsed and have used an inappropriate gesture, don’t panic. Just drop your arms to your sides for a few moments, which will act as a re-set. Don’t leave your hands by your sides for too long, however, as it will look stiff and robotic.

• Don’t cross your arms – it looks defensive and inaccessible. It is quite easy to default to this position when you’re not speaking, for example when you are being introduced or when you are listening to questions from the audience.

• Never wring your hands; this means any position where you clasp your hands together, with or without intertwined fingers, and move them back and forth, which communicates nervousness and anxiety. If you feel the temptation to do so, steeple your fingers instead – this will express a moment of thoughtfulness before you move on to the next topic.

• If you want to convey sincerity you can place your hand on your heart, but don’t over-use this gesture or trot it out when you’re making a banal assertion – it will look cheesy.

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