What a disaster! --As used in Jewish communities, "The hand clasps the neck behind the ear" (Morris 1994:168).
Gesture. 1. Touching, scratching, or holding the back of the neck or head with the opened palm. 2. In variant forms, a. reaching a hand upward to scratch an ear, grasp an earlobe, or stimulate an ear canal; and b. touching, scratching, or rubbing the cheek or side of the neck.
Usage: In a conversation, hand-behind-head may be read as a potential sign of uncertainty, conflict, disagreement, frustration, anger, or disliking (i.e., social aversion). It usually reflects negative thoughts, feelings, and moods. In counseling, interviewing, and cross-examining, the gesture telegraphs a probing point, i.e., an unresolved issue to be verbalized and explored.
Culture. Note that hand-behind-head is an asymmetrical gesture made with one hand only (see below, Neuro-notes). In the U.S., leaning back and placing both hands behind the neck in the bilateral head clamp posture is a nonverbal sign of dominance. "This display reveals that someone feels no need to show eagerness or attention" (Morris 1994:142; seeIMMEDIACY).
Emoticon. For Japanese e-mail users, in the phrase (^o^;>), "The triangular shape on the right apparently represents a protruding elbow and stems from the fact that an embarrassed or apologetic person will sometimes scratch the back of his or her head" (Pollack N.D.).
Observations. 1. Asked if he would like to have lunch with the group, a hesitant co-worker touches the back of his head with his hand. Sensing uncertainty, a colleague responds, "Maybe tomorrow?" 2. Seeing his boss reach for her earlobe as he raises a sensitive point, an account executive proceeds with caution to resolve the issue. 3. When Jones suggests a new idea at the weekly staff meeting, Smith glances away and clasps his neck. Sensing resistance (which could fester and sabotage the proposal), Jones asks Smith to voice his opinion to the group in words.
U.S. politics. On the December 29th, 2000 Tonight Show, while explaining problems to Jay Leno about his network's flawed projection of the winner of the U.S. Presidential contest in Florida (i.e., in declaring Al Gore, and then George W. Bush, the victor), NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw lifted his right hand upward and then reached it backward to scratch the crown of his coiffed hairdo, in an unconscious, hand-behind-head-like sign of depleted perplexity.
RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "At the beginning of the sequence, mother and son are flirting happily, until she picks up another baby. Her son, I Karsa, shows jealousy [i.e., displays the hand-behind-head gesture] when she suckles this other baby, and as the sequence continues, his behavior alternates between impotent misery and rage" (Bateson and Mead 1942:160).2. In conflict situations scratching behind the ear is a displacement sign (Tinbergen 1951). 3. In psychiatric settings, patients used hand-behind-head cues when disagreeing with physicians (Grant 1969). 4. In children and adults, palm-to-back-of-neck occurs in psychologically frustrating situations (Brannigan and Humphries 1969). 5. Athletes use hand-behind-head gestures when frustrated or angry (Nierenberg and Calero 1971). 6. When a child must choose between joining or leaving his mother, he may "touch the back of his head with the flat of his hand, then set off to rejoin the mother" (Anderson 1972:211). 7. "Mr. X when involved in group discussion on another patient's homosexuality placed his hand on the back of his neck (hand to neck) when saying the word 'homosexual'" (Brannigan and Humphries 1972:55). 8. In a frustrating, puzzling, or conflict situation, deaf-and-blind-born children scratch their heads (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1973). 9. In two-to-five year old children, hand-behind-head and gaze avoidance are responses to parental scolding (Givens 1977B). 10. In the neck clamp, a sign of unexpressed anger, "The hand swings up abruptly to clamp itself hard on to the nape of the neck. This unconscious action is a telltale sign of suddenly aroused, but otherwise unexpressed anger" (Morris 1994:167).
E-Commentary: "During interviews, I have observed people touching the back of the neck immediately after being told that they are suspect, and then followed up each time the investigators were accurate in describing something only the suspect knew about. I have also noted the speed at which the arm races to the back of the neck and head as being significant, and the amount of force applied once the hand reached the head or back of neck. Strong massaging action has also been observed especially when difficult circumstances are being contemplated. One of the other things I look for is not just that the hand dashes to the back of the head, but also how long the hand loiters in the area, and in reaction to what specifically was being discussed. At the same time, I look for the angle of the head and neck as the hand strokes the back of the head or neck. The greater the angle away from the verticle, the more troublesome the issue for the person. I saw a man literally bend forward to the point where he lifted himself off of the chair as he brought his hand to the back of the neck and then bent forward as he was being confronted. I hope this helps; let me know if I can give you additional insight." --J.N., FBI (2/25/00 5:22:43 PM Pacific Standard Time)
Neuro-notes. Hand-behind-head is a gestural fossil left over from spinal-cord circuits designed to keep the body upright in relation to gravity through neck reflexes (specifically, theATNR). Rotating or bending the head to the right, e.g., produces bending (i.e., flexion) of the left arm, which may curl behind the back of the head (Ghez 1991) in a fencing posture. Negative opinions, feelings, and moods stimulate defensive withdrawal (i.e., an avoider's response mediated by paleocircuits of the brain-stem and spinal cord) as we unconsciouslyturn away from persons arousing the emotion. Areas of the limbic system, including the amygdala and cingulate gyrus (Damasio 1994), in tandem with the basal ganglia(MacLean 1990), may trigger the response. Turning the head away stimulates muscle-spindle receptors of the neck, and receptors in joints of the upper cervical vertebrae, releasing the unconscious arm movements of the ATNR.
See also FLEXION WITHDRAWAL.