The Body Language of Fingers: Deciphering the Discourse of Digits

A Guide to Conducting Research in the Age of Covid-19: Part 7

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

The Finger. That’s right. You know what I mean. And so does everyone else. That’s because it’s an “emblem.” What’s an emblem, you ask? We’ll that’s the point.

According to Dr. Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of nonverbal intelligence, “the finger” is considered an emblem. Writes Ekman, “Emblems have a very precise meaning, known to everyone within a cultural group. Everyone knows that the finger means ‘(EXPLETIVE DELETED) you’ or ‘up yours…’”[1]

Oh, and did we mention that emblems are almost always intentional? So, if someone “gives you the finger” it wasn’t an accident. Well that’s obvious, you think. And it is, but the other digits have something to say, and they are a bit more subtle.

In our last blog, “The Body Language of hands: Watching Them Talk Can Come in Handy,“ we provided 10 tips on understanding the hands. On your next umpteenth Zoom call, if you watch closely, there is much more to see if you can also observe the fingers[2]. Among them:

  1. FINGERS CLOSE TOGETHER: Generally, an indication of tenseness or discomfort.
  2. FINGERS SPREAD APART: Typically, a sign of being relaxed and comfortable.
  3. THE FINGER GUN: Just like it sounds. People will unconsciously form a gun with their two fingers when they do not like what they are hearing or are feeling aggressive.
  4. POINTING A FINGER AT SOMEONE: Don’t do it! Nobody likes it. Do you?
  5. POINTING A FINGER (PART 2): Be careful, could be someone trying to give directions instead of drilling you with a bony finger.
  6. THE MIDDLE FINGER: We already covered this. Use with caution.
  7. FINGERS BALLED UP IN A FIST/WHITE KNUCKLES: Typically, a sign of anger or frustration. If accompanied by flared nostrils and rapid breathing beware—an attack may be imminent.
  8. THUMBS UP: Careful here…Generally safe in the US but in some cultures, it is considered a phallus.
  9. POINTING WITH THE THUMB: A sure sign of disrespect and to be avoided.
  10. TAPPING WITH FINGERS: Means I’m bored and/or need to go.


So, now we’ve shown you how to decode micro expressions, the torso, the arms, and the fingers. But what if you’re on a video conference with voice only? Relax, our next blog will help you understand what the voice can tell us other than just words.

As a body language master and qualitative moderator, I can tell you that in-person interviewing yields significantly more information than remote methods for those who can decipher the cues, but phone and video remain powerful alternatives for quickly collecting many types of data—especially now.

Download our more in-depth comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of remote interviewing. For additional information on COVID-19 visit the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Coronavirus information page.

Most Communication is Nonverbal. ARE YOU FLUENT?


[1] Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (Revised Edition)

Paul Ekman:

[2] Wezowski, Kasia. Without Saying a Word: Master the Science of Body Language and Maximize Your Success (pp. 202-203). AMACOM. Kindle Edition.