Hand Gestures - Affect Displays (Part 1)

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Hi and welcome.

In this part we’re gonna talk about the affect displays category of kinesics. This category includes gestures that their purpose is to project a certain emotion: be it fear, anger, happiness, sadness etc etc.

Emotions are easily interpreted and expressed through our face - a mask capable of making hundreds of combinations of facial muscles that we know to recognize and associate with certain feelings. Therefore, most affect displays are naturally face expressions.

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Generally speaking - almost every gesture carries some emotional “baggage” with it - it all depends on the context which it appears in. But to keep it simple, in these articles on affect displays I will focus on hand gestures that have little purpose besides revealing a certain emotion or setting a “tone” to whatever is being said, be it intentionally or accidentally.

In the second part we will focus specifically on attraction related gestures, how stress can be interpreted as attraction and how they’re connected.

Alright let’s start with:

Rubbing Hands

The Emotion: Positive Expectancy and Excitement.

Busta Rhymes going to get something good...

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In this gesture the speed of the motion is what truly matters.

Slow rubbing of hands is associated with self gain expectations, often at the expense of others.

This is the classic evil genius example – slowly rubbing the hand in glee while giggling.

If on the other hand it's a fast and excited rub of the hands - it's a positive expectation or a general excitement. This person expects that something good is about to happen and if you're involved you're going to benefit from it too.

How accurate is this prediction? I won’t automatically assume that anyone who slowly rubbing his hands is planning the world domination, but it can be a warning signal that this person might not be entirely truthful if this happens during a negotiation. I’d much prefer to see the fast rubbing and share a mutual excitement.

By the way, why rub the hands in the first place?

The aim of this hand gesture is to prepare the hands for action. It warms the hands and make blood circulate faster - making them more nimble and dexterous. You can often observe such action in people who’re about to “get their hands dirty”.

It goes without saying that rubbing hands in cold weather means something else entirely - they’re cold, not expecting anything special besides a warm place to be.

Rolling up Sleeves

Emotion: Confidence, Readiness to action

Another readiness gesture is pulling up the sleeves, universally it's an action that prepares the hands for some work - be it a fight, some manual labor or even for non-physical activities such as making a presentation.

Rolling up the sleeves, in its true purpose, keeps the sleeves from getting dirty and allows the hands move more freely. But, it’s also a assertive and high self-confidence signal, some examples:

Just wait 'till I get ya!

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●       Pulling sleeves before a fight is not very necessary, but it’s a warning sign that meant to frighten the opponent.

●       It’s often done before a difficult task is about to be performed - again, it can be some manual labor as lifting heavy weight starting an important lecture.

●       This action shows assertive traits by revealing muscles, especially during cold weather when it states “I’m not cold - I even roll up my sleeves”.

In general, this hand gesture is the trademark of a hard-working and goal oriented men and women.


Emotion: Positive confidence or arrogance.

To make this gesture hold the fingertips of both hands together, like a prayer sign, only leave empty space between your palms.

It's a powerful expression that says something like “I feel very good about this” or  "Everything is under control".

On the plus side it reflects power, self assurance, dominance and clear, logical thinking. Very popular among people in authority or logical thinkers such as managers, lawyers, doctors, engineers - you can easily understand why.

On the minus side, it can be an arrogant attitude of "I know it all", especially if backed up with gestures as tilting the head back and\or a smug face.

There's also the inverted steeple version with your fingers pointing down - a less assertive sign that usually appears on the listener side of the conversation. It shows confidence and a calculated mind.

This hand gesture is usually something you acquire with power and social status. It's a static and controlled , meaning you’ll rarely see it as an impulsive reaction during a conversation.

Here's a nice video of Joe Navarro talk about the steeple gesture:

Shaking Fist

Emotion: Anger and Aggression

A fist is our natural weapon of choice - a club of skin and bones. No wonder that it’s meaning is associated with anger. If your aim is to intimidate or to inspire aggressive actions - this is the gesture for you.

The act of holding the fist in the air and shaking it while speaking is a kind of power play, people use it to show decisiveness and conviction in their goal. (just like the cutting-hand gesture we discussed before)

Another version to this fist gesture you can observe often enough is the ‘fist thrust up’ - A symbol of power and aggression. It's also a popular in opposition and resistance groups.


While these are powerful hand gestures when a strong and decisive approach is desired, but, always keep in mind that people don’t take kindly to intimidation and aggressive displays and there are consequences to such actions. Don’t play with fire if you can’t stand up the heat.

Moving On

We move to the next part on Affect displays here - Part 2,

or you can jump to any part of hand gestures you like next:

Hand Gestures - Basics

Emblems (Part 1 | Part 2)

Illustrators (Part 1 | Part 2)

Affect Displays (Part 1 | Part 2)

Regulators (Part 1 | Part 2)


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