Hand Gestures - Adaptors

Homepage - Gestures - Hand Gestures Roles | Emblems (Part 1Part 2

Illustrators(Part 1Part 2) | Affect Displays (Part 1Part 2) | Regulators (Part 1, Part 2) | Adaptors

Welcome to the final part in our hand gestures series, where we’re gonna look at the most misinterpreted and subtle category of kinesics - The Adaptors.

The role of such actions is to: make us more comfortable, release excess energy, pacify nervousness or shift weight to change posture. That’s why they’re called adaptors - they adapt our body to a more calibrated and comfortable state.

Adaptors are actions that happen almost entirely unaware - we never think about them and we rarely notice if we even make them. This attribute makes adaptors a very honest channel of information, although many times also very useless.

1) We can identify tension and nervousness from such gestures. We can also discover “hot spots” - key moments during an interaction that signal suppressed feelings or thoughts.

2) They can help us reveal deceit. and I don’t specifically mean lying, it also includes exaggeration, shame, doubt and uncertainty. Such negative feelings inspire nervous actions that require some sort of pacifying behavior we can learn to spot.

3) They can be utterly meaningless - shifting weight or scratching the ear might be a simple reaction to physical uneasiness that has nothing to do with feelings or attitude.

This ambiguity in adaptors is the reason why we need to be extra careful when analyzing such gestures. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming too much or relying too heavily on a single nervous expression. Never be quick to judge others, especially if you believe they’re being dishonest.

Pinocchio Effect - Revealing Deceit

First of all I want to clarify that when I speak of deceit it doesn't necessarily mean lying. It includes doubt, exaggeration, not telling the whole story and white lies. It’s important to accept that there’s no such thing as a sign that means “I’m lying right now” - we’re not that stupid after all..

What we can do is to identify if there is a negative body language, and from that point try to discover it’s source.

It’s not easy, as interrogators around the world can admit, but with practice and patience you can often get to the bottom and reveal the truth.

Let’s start with hand gestures that help us identify negative body language. In general, it includes any action that touches part of the head or face:

  • Touching or covering the mouth creates a barrier, as if the person tries to prevent  himself from speaking or hearing lies.

  • Pulling the earlobe can be a signal that we don't like what we hear (it can be our own lie we don’t like).

  • Rubbing the eye to avoid eye contact, in more obvious cases it will include looking down or away.
  • Lightly touching the nose – the nose can itch in discomfort during a lie. Pinocchio's nose grew - ours only itch.

  • Fake cough 

  • Rubbing the forehead, the temple or the neck.

How to distinguish between a physical “itch” or a pacifying behavior?

In both cases there is a physical irritation that leads to touching the face, but if it’s only an itch - you’ll have a few deliberate scratches to really satisfy it. In the case of psychological tension the self-touch would be quicker and lighter, not really “hitting the spot”.

When you see such gestures, don’t assume automatically there’s deceit, but instead open your eyes for more clusters of negative body language. You’re building a case, so better get your facts right.

Getting to the bottom

So we identified what we believe is a pacifying behavior. What’s next? how to know what’s the problem?

It requires careful observation and “taking in the whole picture” approach to truly identify what sort of deceit (if any) there is. All you know is that the action of touching the face is a natural reaction that tries to suppress negative feelings or events.

Now your strategy involves looking for  hot spots = specific moments when such negative hand gestures occur, what can hint on the source of the problem. Some examples:

  • Covering the mouth while hearing bad news is a natural reaction to such events, there’s no deceit here, but tension, fear and sadness.

  • Touching the mouth when asked a specific personal question indicates that the interviewee feels uneasiness answering that question and might  not be entirely open or honest about it.

  • If the listener believes he hears lies he can manifest self touch behavior in  response - he doesn’t lie himself, but his exposure to lies puts him in discomforted position.

Your best strategy to truly uncover dishonesty is actually continue to act normally and investigate further without arousing suspicion or accusing anyone. This way you have more opportunities to identify “hot spots” (or to confirm them), just ask casually a follow-up question when you identify a hot-spot and watch if your interview squirm.


When we experience fear, frustration, anticipation or restlessness, our body tense up and build energy as part of our freeze, flight or fight natural response.We prepare the body for an emergency reaction, but without a specific purpose this energy creates impatience and we waste it on meaningless activities like touching the face, drumming the fingers, tapping the leg on the floor and many other useless actions. Hand gestures to the face can be a result of such tension.

Signals such as biting fingernails and clasping the hands around the head also reveal emotional tension. These are very comforting actions because they are reminiscent of our infancy period. Our parents held our head in their arms and we sucked the thumb (which is a reminiscent action of breastfeeding actually).That's why it's an automatic response for some people when facing a lot of emotional stress.

Some other examples of emotional distress are:

Covering the face or part of it usually comes with shame and embarrassment, for own sake or someone else's (like when hearing an embarrassing story of a friend).

Slapping the forehead or the neck is a self punishing act, usually for the "crime" of forgetting.

Smoking - an alternative stimulation for sucking the thumb.

Pulling the lips can be an alternative to biting them. It's a childish gesture that gives an innocent and naive impression. Bill Clinton loved to use it to arouse more sympathy towards him in his troubled times.

Interestingly enough, biting the lips can be used as an arousing flirtatious act because it bestirs paternal or maternal emotions.

The End

Phew, It was a long series…

I believe we covered all the important concepts of hand gestures, and you are now equipped with more than enough useful tips and insights.

The division to categories should help you identify and interpret hand gestures much more easily - if you know their role you know why they occur and to which response.

Understanding hand gestures however is one thing, mastering them is a completely another. Knowing when and where to use them is an art form - it plays a big part in every leader’s body language arsenal - be it a politician, a manager, a teacher or commander.

“Talking” as you saw, is not something done solely with the mouth, but with the whole body. Know how to manipulate the messages you send and you’re the master of influence.

Have fun!

Hand Gestures - Basics

Emblems (Part 1 | Part 2)

Illustrators (Part 1 | Part 2)

Affect Displays (Part 1 | Part 2

Regulators (Part 1 | Part 2)


Return to the gestures main section

Return to homepage - Study Body Language

Return to top

Copyright © Study-Body-Language.com 2012 - 2016

Disclaimer Privacy Policy