Finger Hands made by Archie McPhee

The first thought to come to mind is probably American Sign Language. Important as it is, that isn’t a big part of this blog, primarily because I know next to nothing about it. For information from experts in Sign Language and Deaf culture, check out these other sources:

Instead, I am going to take a look at the hand language that people pick up without really thinking about it. In spite of humans developing amazing verbal language, we still engage our hands to enhance communication of our emotions, thoughts, and meaning. Think of how hands are used by effective speakers (e.g., Hitler), magicians, and orchestra conductors, for example.

Talking Hands are a Gift for Writers! 

Use hands to show rather than tell how a person is feeling, whether anxious, scared, frustrated, or confident. Mismatching words and hand movements are invaluable for indicating dishonesty, lies, or at the least a situation undermining trust.

Hand slang is culture-bound. By hand slang, I mean gestures that convey a specific meaning in a particular culture. For example, in the United States, the following gestures are generally understood:

  • Rubbing palms together: anticipation, positive expectation; rubbing faster is more positive
  • Tubbing thumb against index finger or fingers: financial gain, expectation
  • Fist pump: victory, win
  • Fist bump: congratulations, casual greeting
  • Closed fist, middle finger extended: f*ck you, up yours
  • Closed fist, index and middle fingers extended: peace, accent for photos
  • Thumb to nose, fingers waggling: mocking, distain
  • Thumbs to ears, tongue sticking out: a childish gesture of disdain or insult
  • Hand over heart: sincerity, believe me
  • Right hand raised, elbow bent: believe me, I swear; stop
  • Clenched fist: anger, irritation, or tension
  • Crooking the index finger: come here, sometimes used flirtatiously 

Hand slang often changes in meaning over time, even within the same culture:

  • Historically, thumbs down means death; now, disapproval or disagreement
  • Thumb up: historically, let the combatant live; now, okay, good job 
  • Index finger curled to touch the thumb: historically, this meant “okay”; recently, this gesture has become a symbol that the wielder is a white supremacist.

Writers note: The same gesture often has different meanings in different cultures. Use the confusion your advantage when there is a cross-cultural element to your story. Touching the index finger to the thumb means different things all over the world:

  • You’re a zero – France and Belgium
  • Money – Japan
  • @sshole – southern Italy
  • Sexual invitation – Greece and Turkey

President Nixon caused a scandal in Brazil when he deplaned with both hands overhead in the American peace sign, which in Brazil is equivalent to flipping someone the bird.

Gendered Gestures

By middle school/early adolescence, gender differences in the use of gestures emerge. Some gestures are used equally by both males and females.

  • Thumbs protruding from pockets: dominance and self-assuredness
  • Gesturing/pointing to someone with the thumb: dismissive, disrespectful, ridiculing
    • Women more likely to use this gesture with people they dislike
  • Males
    • Give “the finger” 
    • Give the finger with an upward arm more to convey “up yours”
    • Pound the table
    • Pound a fist into the opposite hand
    • Display clenched fists
    • Use expansive, powerful hand movements
    • Use adaptors less frequently (see below)
    • Holding jacket lapel with thumbs exposed: dominant and self-assuredness
  • Females
    • Put their hands in their laps or on their hips
    • Tap their hands on the table or on their leg
    • Pull in their gestures as if their elbows are attached to their waists
    • Use more “bonding” gestures, such as hands and arms outstretched toward another person
    • Be more expressive, more animated in their use of gestures
    • Use low steepled finger position (see below)
    • Place one hand over the other and rest her chin on top, drawing attention to the face

Writers portraying a person of the other sex heed this: getting body language wrong—in this case hand talk—makes your character come across as unreal or unbelievable.

Professional Gestures

Several professions require conveying information through hand gestures that fall outside the structure of a formalized language. People in these professions tend to remain cognizant of their hand movements and position even when not working. Some make an effort to minimize or completely still their hands, while others are especially prone to enhance their communication with conscious hand gestures.

  • Musical conductors often subconsciously cue other speakers even when off the stage. Conductors are trained to use their left and right hands simultaneously to make completely independent movements, signalling the tempo and style with the right hand and controlling musicians’ entrances and overall tone with the left.
  • Classical dance traditions in India, Bali, Japan, and many other regions include a “vocabulary” of hand signs. These signs are not a formalized language like ASL, but they are used in combination with the music to create a message or tell a story physically embodied by the movements of the entire body.
  • Romani dancers have a much less formal dance style, and it is common for individual dancers or families to create or adjust their own lexicon of hand movements. These gestures often reflect activities in daily life. Unlike Indian or Balinese dancers, Romani dancers’ footwork and figures tends to be relatively simple.
  • Ballet, and many offshoot lyrical dance styles, uses hand gestures either to extend the movement of their arms or to communicate story elements via pantomime.

Gestures as Adaptors

Adaptors are almost always learned in childhood, typically involving touching oneself, for the purpose of self-soothing. Often people exhibit only one such behavior/habit, but an individual could have multiples. For example, pulling on an ear, tapping toes, smoothing eyebrows, touching nose or chin, bouncing a knee, twisting fingers, picking at one’s nails, twirling hair, and brushing hair back. Adaptors can include adjusting clothing (e.g., pulling on/straightening a tie), fiddling with jewelry, pocket change, or a pencil, and drumming one’s fingers. 

Important things about using/exhibiting adaptors:

  • They attract attention, detracting from the verbal communication and/or annoying others
  • They are often interpreted as signs of anxiety
  • They make the exhibitor less persuasive 

Writers note: There are lots of ways to show anxiety or nervousness without telling the reader that is what is being felt.

What the hands say is often louder than words. Research by Joe Navarro’s and others supports this conclusion. 

  • When people hide their hands (for example, under a table or desk) they are perceived as less open and less honest.
  • How we touch someone reveals how we feel about them: full touch with the palm is warm and affectionate; touching with fingertips shows less affection.
  • When people feel comfortable and strong, fingers are spread out more, making hands more territorial.
  • When feeling insecure, people’s fingers are closer, sometimes thumbs tucked into palms.
  • Steepled fingers: when held high, feeling confident; low steepled fingers signal the person is listening, attending.
  • When feeling confident, thumbs rise more as the person speaks, especially if fingers are intertwined.
  • Two gestures express extreme stress: the Teepee Finger rub (palms facing, fingers interlaced and held stiff or rubbed slowly back and forth; and fingers intertwined palms facing up.
  • When adults’ words don’t match their gestures they are seen as less trustworthy.
  • Hands clenched together: scared, nervous, or holding back a strong negative emotion.

Position is important: in front of face, on desk or lap, in front of genitals when standing; in general, the higher the clenched fists, the stronger the negative emotion.

  • Hand behind the back, one hand gripped in the other: superiority and confidence.
  • Arms back, one hand gripping wrist: holding back frustration, a gesture of self-control. 

Get a grip on yourself?—Arms back, one hand gripping the other arm: the higher up the hand grips the opposite arm, the more frustrated or angry the person is likely to be.

Writers be aware: mismatching words and hand movements is a powerful tool.

Pay attention to handshakes. Because a handshake is often the first touch between people, it shapes first impressions.

  • No one likes vice-like grips, which convey aggressiveness, perhaps an attempt to intimidate or establish dominance.
  • A limp handshake does not denote femininity, but rather weakness.
  • Body language experts suggest mirroring the other person’s handshake, with good eye contact.
  • NB: In some cultures a hug or cheek-kissing might be more in order.

Talking With One’s Hands Isn’t a Bad Thing

  • An analysis of TED talks found that the most popular speakers used nearly twice as many hand gestures as the least popular speakers.
  • People who talk with their hands tend to be viewed as warm, agreeable and energetic.
  • People who use their hands less are seen as logical, cold and analytical.
  • According to Kinsey Gorman, “Gesturing can help people form clearer thoughts, speak in tighter sentences, and use more declarative language.”
  • Hand gestures often tell others the strength of our emotions and motivations.
  • Young children (age 5 or 6) using more hand gestures predicts a strong vocabulary as well ask sills related to sentence structure and storytelling later.

Bottom line for writers: Hand movements and gestures allow you to convey so much information to your readers:

  • Show not tell emotions and attitudes
  • Add depth to your character
  • Add power to your dialogue
  • Break up big chunks of narrative or dialogue in meaningful ways


All writers should seriously consider including one or more lefties among their cast of characters – think of the possibilities! Let’s begin with ways being left-handed in and of itself creates obstacles for the leftie.

By definition, a left-handed  person is in the minority: with no overt effort to control handedness, lefties make up only 10% of the population today (9% of females, 11% of males). There is evidence that 500,000 year ago, neanderthals were characterized by this 90/10 split.  Simply living in a right-handed world is a challenge. Consider the number of things that are made to be used right-handed, from scissors to guitars to golf clubs. Yes, special implements are available, but that is just the point—they are “special,” and often more expensive. In some places, and at some times, special accommodations aren’t even available. 

Writers Note:  Any right-handed implement being used by a leftie could make a nice scene, and the way the leftie copes would clearly illuminate the leftie’s character.

Biases Against Lefties

  • “Right” phrases for positive things (such as right answer, right-hand man) vs. “left” phrases for things that are clumsy or bad (e.g., two left feet or a left-handed compliment).
  • Because the left hemisphere of the brain (which controls the right side of the body) is responsible for words, in almost every language the words for the right side of the body are positive and for the left side are negative.
    • In English, the direction “right” also means correct or proper.
    • In languages derived from Latin, left also means unlucky; sinister means evil.
    • In French, gauche means left, awkward, and clumsy; droit(e) means right, straight, as well as law.
  • In Ghana, a person can’t point with a left hand because the left hand is reserved for dirty things.
  • In some Islamic cultures, people are said to step into the mosque with the right foot, into the toilet with the left.
  • Only the right hand can be used for eating in most cultures where eating with bare hands is the norm.
  • Across cultures, words with more letters on the right side of the keyboard are rated more positively than average; words with more left side letters were rated more negatively. Since 1990, names with more right-side letters are wildly more popular.
  • Most religions have a strong bias for the right hand, particularly in Christian cultures:
    • The faithful sit at the Right Hand of God.
    • Black magic and Satanism are often referred to as the Left-Hand Path.
    • “And he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left.” Matthew 25: 32–33
  • When asked to judge two alien creatures side-by-side on the page, right-handers attributed more positive to the one on the right, while lefties were more positive toward the one on the left (attribution of honest, intelligent, attractiveness).
  • Lefties can learn to behave like right-handed people, and some cultures and periods in history have pushed strongly to suppress left-handedness.
Left-handed children were forced to use their non-dominant hand in school well into the 20th Century in the US.

Writer questions: How does your leftie cope with these biases on a daily basis? What if a leftie from a more accepting culture finds him/ herself in a stricter culture, and had to learn to write right-handed, and not hand anything to someone with the left hand?

The Downside of Left-Handedness

  • Mental illness is more common in left-handed people.
    • Lefties have a higher risk of psychosis. Lefties make up 20% or more of people diagnosed.
    • Lefties make up 40% of people diagnosed as schizophrenic.
    • Scientists have also found an increased risk for autism, ADHD, and dyslexia.
    • Lefties are more affected by fear, often showing subtle behaviors like people with PTSD.
    • Lefties are more prone to having negative emotions, such as anger.
    • Lefties seem to have a harder time processing their feelings.
    • Lefties report feeling more inhibited, shy, and embarrassed.
    • For mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disease, lefties make up 11%, close to their proportion in the general population.
During certain time periods, being left handed was enough to be convicted of witchcraft.
  • Left-handedness is positively correlated with lower-birth-weight and complications.
  • 40% of children with cerebral palsy were left-handed.
  • Lefties are more likely to break bones.
  • Lefties are more likely to have heart disease and to die earlier as a result.
  • For women 
    • Left-handedness is associated with a 62% increased risk for Parkinson’s disease.
    • A higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis.
    • Lefties have a higher risk of breast cancer, especially in post-menopausal women.
  • Paraphiliacs (exhibiting atypical sexual interests, typically involving extreme or dangerous activities) have a higher rate of left-handedness.
  • Greater rates of left-handedness have been documented for pedophiles.
  • Overall lefties salaries are 10% lower on average than right-handers. (Among the college educated, lefties earned 10-15% more than their right-handed colleagues.)

Writers: choose the psychological or health issue your leftie has(to) overcome.

Several members of the British Royal Family are left-handed.

The Upside of Left-Handedness

  • Lefties are more likely to develop some measure of dexterity in their non-dominant hand, most likely a result of years using tools designed for righties.
  • Lefties have a lower rate of arthritis.
  • Lefties have a lower rate of ulcers.
  • Lefties are better at divergent thinking, which generating ideas that explores many possible solutions.
  • Lefties tend to be drawn to careers in the arts, music, sports, and information-technology fields, and are often successful.
  • A slightly larger proportion of lefties are especially gifted in music and math.
Link from Legend of Zelda Is one of the few canonically left-handed video game characters.
  • Lefties have an advantage in hand-to-hand combat, analogous to throwing a curveball.
  • Lefties have an advantage in sports that involve aiming at a target, and are over-represented in baseball, tennis, table tennis, badminton, fencing, cricket, and boxing.
  • Some cultures have historically accepted or even revered left-handed individuals:
    • The Incas positively regarded left-handed individuals as people who possessed special spiritual abilities.
    • In Buddhism, the natural persuasion to use the left hand implied wisdom, according to it’s teachings.
    • In early Russia, “levsha” (left-hander) became a common noun for a skilled craftsman of status.
  • Women who hold their infants in their right arm (presumably to leave their left hand free for fine-motor skills) are less likely to suffer from post-partum depression.

Writers: At last! Ways your leftie might thrive.

Also Related to Handedness—or Not

  • Immune system disorders are not more common for lefties.
  • The research on handedness and homosexuality is not consistent.
  • A childs dominant hand is clear by age 3 or 4.
  • Genetic males with female gender identities were more than twice as likely to be left handed than the control group
  • Lefties drink more
    • But they are no more prone to alcoholism.
  •  How speech is heard:
    • Right-handed people like rapidly-changing sounds like consonants;
    • Lefties hear slowly-changing sounds like syllables or intonation better.
  • People use their non-dominant hand for negative gestures
  • Handedness is a combination of genetics, biology, and environment; although left-handedness does tend to run in families, but a left-handed identical twin’s twin is right-handed about 30% of the time.
  • Overall, people gesture more with their dominant hand, especially when saying something positive.
Castles were built with clockwise spiral staircases to provide an advantage to defenders coming down the stairs.
  • People attack with their dominant hands, defend with the other.
  • Lefties are biased in favor of candidates on the left side of the ballot. (Everyone is biased in favor of people listed near the top of the ballot.)
  • Four of the last seven U.S. presidents were left-handed (Obama, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ford); earlier, Garfield and Truman were lefties, and maybe Reagan was born a leftie but made into a right-hander. Info isn’t available for earlier presidents due to widespread efforts to suppress left-handedness.

Writers: Some of this info might help your hero/ine leftie in a fight, or it could just make for and interesting behavioral quirk.

Left-handed Chinese fencer Li Na again South Korean Shin A-lam

Not addressed in this blog: There is a lot of research on handedness and brain lateralization which I haven’t touched on. I focused instead on observables and emotions that might be useful to writers.

BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: a left-handed character could be a gold mine. Start prospecting!

AND LEFTIES HAVE THEIR OWN DAY: AUGUST 13 IS INTERNATIONAL LEFT-HANDERS DAY.  Since 1992, it is a celebration of sinistrality—i.e., left-handedness! Mark your calendar for 2020.