The Body Language of Hands: Watching Them Talk Can Come in Handy

A Handy Guide to Conducting Research in the Age of Covid-19: Part 6

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

Hands get a bad rap[1]. How, you ask? Well, fill in the blanks. “Don’t bite the (____) that feeds you.” “Blood on your (____).” “Bound (____) and foot.” And, lest we forget, “(____) caught in the cookie jar.” The hands always seem to be mired in deep (NOT HANDS; EXPLETIVE DELETED).

And, of course, this is never good:  

“Wait a minute,” you think. Sometimes hands get industrious. After all, profit can be made when “business is at (____)” which often results in “cash on (____).”  And sometimes hands are called upon to pitch in: “All (____) on deck!” or “All (____) to the pump!”.

I could go on and on with this but suffice it to say our hands are into everything. While you’re watching what they do, if you look carefully, you can hear what they say.

In our last blog ”A Call to Arms: Deciphering the Language of Limbs,” we provided 10 tips on understanding arms. The hands want a word now. There is much to detect when you observe the hands[2]. Among them:

  1. RUBBING HANDS TOGETHER SLOWLY: Preparing for action or could be a sign that a win-win for everyone is imminent.
  2. RUBBING HANDS TOGETHER FAST: Good for me (maybe not so much for you).
  3. CLASPING YOUR HANDS: Could be a sign of frustration or tension. White knuckles?
  4. SHAKY HANDS If a person’s hands are shaking, this is a clear sign that they are experiencing powerful emotions.
  5. STIFF HANDS Typically a sign of tension and stress
  6. BALLED FISTS: Anger. If coupled with flared nostrils, run away. Fast.
  7. HANDS DRAPED OVER ONE ANOTHER: Depending on context, this could typically be a relaxing habit (often seen after a good meal) or imply the need for distance or withdrawal.
  8. HANDS IN A PYRAMID: A.K.A. The “Steeple”—Someone who is certain of his/her opinion.
  9. HAND ON THE SIDE OF THE FACE: This says I’m interested.
  10. HAND SUPPORTING THE HEAD: This says I’m bored or not interested.


But you need to be careful when interpreting these signs. They all need context. For example, If you see a person’s hands shaking, is that the residue of a heinous experience, or could it simply be 5:00 pm somewhere and—much like Pavlov’s dogs—anticipation of a cocktail is high?

So, now that we’ve talked about decoding micro expressions, the torso, and the arms, what’s next? That’s right. The fingers.

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?


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

Image Credit: jacquelinetinney