Hand Gestures - The Basics

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

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


Hi, welcome to the series where we'll focus on signals and signs we receive from the hands.

Before we start, let me ask you a question: How often do you believe you make gestures with your hands? How often do you take actions that have nothing to do with being "productive"?

Hard to say, I know, because we barely aware of such habits, but for try this: Resist making ANY hand movements that don't have a specific use during one full day. Just try to hold your hands as still as possible to your sides - don’t scratch your nose, wave for hello, touch someone’s arm or point to show the way, a 24 hours of (almost) complete stillness with your hands.

I myself tried this once and I found that restriction extremely frustrating, I admit, I slipped more often than I care to remember.

But besides the physical inconvenience, I found out that my interactions with others just felt “stuck”, my conversations grew to be formal, cold and short, as if everything I said had a very short expiration date.

Just try it for a day

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I indulge you to try the same and compare your results, I don't think you'll find this as trivial as you may think.

But why is that so? What exactly is the  purpose of such "unproductive" yet vital hand gestures in our life?

These are the exact questions we're gonna explore in this complete series. but first let's start with:

Why the Hands?

Most of our gestures come from the hands, and we're very adept at making and understanding signals through them. How it came to be?

Well, the hands are our main tools for about... anything - from playing music to building skyscrapers, hands are the symbol of productivity and creative work. It's only natural then that we will find a way to communicate with them. (This adaptation happened looong before we had words or alphabet)

The way our hands built is very unique actually - the opposable thumb that can flex and reach the other fingers allows us to hold and use tools. This trait is very useful, because using tools for creative solutions is one of our trademarks as an "advanced" and smart species.

Contrary to popular belief, human are not the only species with opposable thumb (some other primates got it too, and even in the legs!), but it's safe to say that we're the most adept using it and adapt it to our needs. That is, until we'll teach an ape to play the drums:

Another aspect is touch which is perhaps the most fundamental form of communication we have, is also relied on our hands. The hands are filled with tons of sensitive sensory nerves that can distinguish even the slightest differences in pressure, heat and texture.

With some practice you can easily identify coins by touching their surface with your fingertips, just like blind people do, a feat I  don't believe you're capable to perform with any other part of your body.

The combination of these two qualities - both manipulating and understating the world around us through our hands, make them a great candidate as the prime tool for making gestures to communicate with others.

The Roles

Kinesics - the study of body language is divided into 5 main categories. They are classified by the role and purpose of the gesture or display:

●       Emblems

●       Illustrators

●       Affect Displays

●       Regulators

●       Adaptors

Now don't worry I'll explain each in a minute, as they will be the base categories to understanding the role of hand gestures in our lives.

Each following heading below leads to its specific part in the series, where you will find more detailed explanation and some some common examples.

Note: I want to clarify that the division of kinesics is NOT unique to hand gestures alone, I only use the main scheme so that these signals can be explored more easily and profoundly.

Let’s get right to it:

Emblems - Figuratively Speaking

Emblems is the group of gestures that is most easily identified and understood, that is, if you share the same cultural background, knowledge or experience.

These are conscious motions that are used to replace words. They are learned just like words and have a specific message that the maker wants to deliver.

Examples: “The finger”, victory sign, thumbs up, the "OK" signal.

Problems arise when we have a different idea of what a specific gesture means. Continue reading more on Emblems hand gestures here.

Illustrators - Visual Aids

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Illustrators are actions that go along words. Whether we want to describe something as big, important or delicate we have the hands to help us out.

As you might already experienced - it's very frustrating talking without moving, it feels so robotic and lacking. When we "talk with the hands" we create a whole new layer of information regarding what we say.

If that layer matches our words we reinforce our message, if it's not, it contradicts our words and thus make us look unreliable.

Of course, on their own, such hand gestures can mean little to nothing, their strength is in their combination with actual words.

Continue reading on Illustrators hand gestures here.

Affect Displays

This set of gestures is used specifically to reveal a certain emotion. This means it's more in the realm of facial expressions, but I'll cover in this part some hand motions that usually accompany a certain emotions (they most often will be on low-awareness level).

Plus, in the second part we'll talk about attraction and which signs can give it away.


Regulators refer to actions that help regulate (I know, it's straightforward) our conversations. How do you know it's your turn to speak? How do you know when a reply is required? By nonverbal means of course.

Furthermore, we will talk about the feedback signals we receive in response. Can we hear the 'yes' or 'no' before it verbalized? Find out here.


Not all hand gestures are about communication. Adaptors are actions we do to make ourselves more comfortable or to release excess energy of stress and excitement, these are the least aware motions, such as:

  • Shifting weight from side to side to sit or stand more comfortably.

  • Scratching.

  • Tapping feet or drumming fingers

The meanings behind such gestures can range from a simple momentary discomfort to outright deceitful behavior.

Learn how to distinguish between the two, and what other significance adaptors may have in this part of hand gestures series.


Oh No...

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Moving On

These are the 5 main categories and roles of hand gestures - you can continue reading them by order here:

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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