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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Palm-Up


An important baton [i.e., speaking gesture] which ties him together with his [TV] viewers occurs when he [Phil Donahue] is seated with his elbows close to the body and his forearms stretch forwards [sic] at a 45 degree angle, palms wide open. --Walburga von Raffler-Engel (1984:13)

Gesture. 1. A speaking or listening gesture made with the fingers extended and the hand(s) rotated to an upward (or supinated) position. 2. A gesture made with the opened palm raised to an appealing, imploring, or "begging" position.

Usage: Uplifted palms suggest a vulnerable or nonaggressive pose that appeals to listeners as allies rather than as rivals or foes. Throughout the world, palm-up cues reflect moods of congeniality, humility, and uncertainty. (Palm-up gestures contrast with palm-down cues, which are more domineering and assertive-like in tone.) Accompanied by "palm shows," our ideas, opinions, and remarks may seem patronizing or conciliatory, rather than aggressive or "pointed." Held out to an opponent across a conference table, the palm-up cue may, like an olive branch, enlist support as an emblem of peace.

Anatomy. As Darwin (1872) noted, palm-up signs are part of a shoulder-shrug posture involving the entire upper body. Lifting a shoulder stretches trapezius and levator scapulae muscles of the neck, tilting the head toward the shoulders' high side. Head-tilt-side, meanwhile, excites muscle-spindle receptors in our neck, stimulating a posture designed to stabilize the head relative to the body and the pull of gravity, released by the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex or ATNR. In the shoulder shrug, the fingers on our neck's tilted side automatically extend as the hand rotates to a raised position, producing the palm-up cue. Rotation is due to contraction of the forearm's supinator muscle, stimulated by the 6th cervical nerve through the brachial plexus. Our upper arm's prominent biceps muscle flexes the elbow joint and brings it closer into our body's side (i.e., adducts the arm at the elbow). Aiding supinator, biceps assists in rotating our palm to its uplifted position.

Culture. 1. In North Africa, cradling one hand in the other "with both in the palm-up position" means, "I don't understand" (Morris 1994:105). 2. In Saudi Arabia, the supinated palms up gesture--made with the upper arms held inward against the sides of the body, and the forearms extended and held forward, horizontally--is a religious sign imploring the deity to witness a user's nonverbal statement, "I swear!" (Morris 1994:197). This Saudi cue incorporates the pancultural humility of the raised, supinated human hand.

Observations. 1. A sales representative appeals to her boss with a palm-up cue: "Do you really want me to fly out to Cleveland tomorrow?" 2. A teenager asks to borrow his mother's car, using a raised palm to plead: "Please, Mom?" 3. In Ghana, a tribal woman gestures with lifted palms after hearing that her husband favors polygamy: "What can we women do?" she asks hopelessly. 4. In the boardroom, a CEO appeals to his senior staff with a palm-up gesture and implores, "I need your help."

Psychiatry. In mental patients, "hands up" with "head up," followed by "hands drop," is a two phase gesture which comes from reaching up for help: "Pick me up" (Engel 1978).

U.S. politics. "Indeed, one of the reasons for Ronald Reagan's remarkable popularity in the United States today may well be his very liberal use of palm displays. How could anyone distrust a guy who is so genial, so disarming, so warm, and so comforting?" (Blum 1988:6-10).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. The first scientific study of palm-up gestures was conducted by Charles Darwin (1872), who saw them as signs derived from a larger shoulder-shrug display. 2. The open-palm-up hand-shrug is a sign of helpless uncertainty and confusion (Ekman and Friesen 1968; "The hand-shrug rotation . . . is an example of a nonverbal repetition of the verbal content; the rotating hands show a nonverbal inability to use the hands to do something, which parallels the verbal statements of uncertainty" [p. 209; Author's Note: This is a curious interpretation of the palm-up cue]). 3. In chimpanzees, palm-up signs are used to beg for food, to invite bodily contact, and to seek support during a conflict: "We call the gesture with the extended arm and open palm 'holding out a hand'. It is the most common hand gesture in the colony" (Waal 1982: 34-36). 4. Palm-up cues are used to ask "who," "what," "when," "why," "where," and "how" questions in diverse sign languages of the deaf from Papua New Guinea to Colombia and New York (Givens 1986). 5. Palm-up cues include: a. hand cradle ("I don't understand"), b. hands shrug (1) (a "disclaimer" in response to questions), c. hands shrug (2) (a "deceptive" speaking gesture), d. palms up (1) ("I implore you," used when public speakers "beg their audiences to agree with them"), and e. palms up (3) (widely used in religious prayer; Morris 1994:105, 137-8, 196-7).

WHAT PALM-UP CUES MEAN
Birdwhistell ("cupped hand," "extended hand," "kinemes" [an entry for a specific palm-up-like gesture is missing from his 1952 book, Introduction to Kinesics]):

Linguistic analogy; palm-up cues display grammatical structure of speech. They also display emotion: "In experiments, Birdwhistell rotated both hands upward and reached them out to strangers as he spoke. He was delighted to learn that nearly everyone had the same reaction. Invited to touch, most responded and placed their palms atop his" (Givens 2005, p. 95).

Darwin ("raised open hand"):
"When a man wishes to show that he cannot do something, or prevent something being done, he often raises with a quick movement both shoulders. At the same time, if the whole gesture is completed, he bends his elbows closely inwards, raises his open hands, turning them outwards, with the fingers separated" (Darwin 1872:264).

Efron
Italian versions of the palm-up cue

Ekman & Friesen ("hand-shrug rotation"):
The hand-shrug rotation is a sign of helpless uncertainty and confusion (Ekman and Friesen 1968): "The hand-shrug rotation . . . is an example of a nonverbal repetition of the verbal content; the rotating hands show a nonverbal inability to use the hands to do something, which parallels the verbal statements of uncertainty" (p. 209).

Engel ("hands up"):
In mental patients, "hands up" with "head up," followed by "hands drop," is a two phase gesture which comes from reaching up for help: "Pick me up" (Engel 1978).

Ferre ("beats," "hand flip," "open-palm gesture," "prosodic units"):
Hand flip: ". . . when a speaker turns his wrist(s) and opens up his hand(s) to present the flat palm to a conversational partner" (Ferre 2012, p. 9).

Givens ("palm-up"):
Palm-up gestures often are assertion displays that carry social-emotional--rather than linguistic-semantic--meanings. Gestures made with the forelimbs (e.g., reptilian push-ups and our own palm-down and palm-up cues) are basically "assertion displays" used to advertise (Greenberg 2002) and assert a sender's physical and socio-emotional presence ( physiological arousal state) to fellow species members. In Anolis lizards, for instance, an assertion display is a visual body movement--such as a push-up to a high-stand above the earthly plain--that is designed to attract notice toward the displayer (Fleishman and Pallus 2010).

That in human beings palm-up assertion gestures normally accompany speech is due, in part, to an ancient neural link between vocalizing (speech) and forelimb signaling (gesturing with the hands). Muscles that today move the human larynx and pectoral girdle evolved from hypobranchial muscles that originally opened the mouths and gill openings of ancient fishes. Neurocircuits that mediate our laryngeal and pectoral movements are connected in the posterior hindbrain and anterior spinal cord (Bass and Chagnaud 2012).

Hass ("baring the palm," "disclosing"):
". . . the speaker often concludes the gesture by baring his palm at the other party. This generally stresses the speaker's punchline and may be evaluated as the symbolic disclosure of an idea" (Hass 1970, p. 148).

Kendon ("palm presentation," "palm-addressed," and "palms lateral" [all in "open hand supine" (OHS) family; Kendon 2004]):
Kendon's palm-addressed cue is "directed" toward another person or an object (p. 265). His "palms lateral" cue is often accompanied by a shoulder-shrug (p. 265). OHS gestures ". . . are used when the speaker is offering, giving or showing something or requesting the reception of something" (p. 248).

Krauss ("word processing"):
Conversational gesturing (such as, e.g., with a palm-up cue) ". . . plays an important role in speech production by facilitating lexical retrieval (Chawla & Krauss, 1994; Morrel-Samuels & Krauss, 1992; Rauscher, Krauss, & Chen, 1996)."

Palm-up cues aid in mentally accessing words.

Ladewig ("holding," "presenting an object"):
"The PUOH [palm up open hand] shows two basic meanings: The 'presentation of discursive objects, which are suggested for agreement' (Muller 2004: 252) or 'presenting arguments and inviting to share perspectives' (idem: 243). In this way, the concrete action of holding an object on the open hand and presenting it to an interlocutor is mapped onto the abstract domain discourse." (paragraph 6, bottom)

McNeill ("catchment," "conduit gesture," "growth point"):
Linguistic analogy; palm-up cues contain semantic content: "Metaphoric gestures [for example] depict images of abstractions. One common to Western culture is the 'conduit' gesture, which presents an idea or immaterial thing as a container. For instance, on McNeill's tapes, speakers typically extend both hands as if to offer the listener a large bowl while saying, 'It was a Sylvester and Tweety cartoon,' or 'The next development in the plot is . . .' " (Henderson 1991).

Mittelberg ("tray," "cup," "lid"--"flat open hand with the palm turned upwards" [Mittelberg 2008, p. 121].)

An idea ". . . inferred as sitting inside of the cupped hand" (p. 129).

Morris ("hand cradle," "hands shrug" & "palms up"):
Palm-up cues for Desmond Morris include: a. hand cradle ("I don't understand"), b. hands shrug (1) (a "disclaimer" in response to questions), c. hands shrug (2) (a "deceptive" speaking gesture), d. palms up (1) ("I implore you," used when public speakers "beg their audiences to agree with them"), and e. palms up (3) (widely used in religious prayer (Morris 1994, pp.105, 137-8, 196-7).

Muller ("palm up open hand" [PUOH]):
"The PUOH shows two basic meanings: The 'presentation of discursive objects, which are suggested for agreement' (Muller 2004:252) or 'presenting arguments and inviting to share perspectives (243). In this way, the concrete action of holding an object on the open hand and presenting it to an interlocutor is mapped onto the abstract domain discourse."

puoh-tray-lh = produced with left hand in flat, horizontal shape of a tray

Scheflen ("bowl-like gestures," "palms oriented upward"):
When talking about dreams or fantasies (Hass 1972).

Streeck ("giving," "offering"):
". . . the supine hand is opened in the direction of the interlocutor and moved forward and down in an arc. The gesture is not a depiction of the actual process (the 'flooding' of a car, i.e. the drenching of the ignition system in petrol, has entirely different properties), but an enactive representation of the concept: an available manual schema, not unlike that for giving or offering (see Chapter 8), is enacted and gives imagistic and sensory quality to the concept 'flooding' " (p. 163).

"Open-handed gestures are well-adapted to the tasks of turn-taking and speaker-change. We are all familiar with manual acts of giving, offering, and solicitation. We know how to give and take things into and out of each other's hands. And we are also familiar with the gesturalization of these acts in ordinary acts of object-transfer: children learn early to recognize the open hands of their parents as requests for objects that they have in their hands. The ambiguity of the appearance of open hands before us congrues with the dual nature of turn-transition: while the listener is the recipient of whatever the speaker's turn is conveying, he or she is also called upon to give something in return. The meaning of the open hand changes with the passing of shared time in conversation: the more time passes after turn-completion, the more pressing is the constraint upon the recipient to produce a turn in response (Streeck 2007b)" (p. 187).

" 'Offering' gestures not only occur during turn-completion and transition, but also in mid-turn. But even in mid-turn they appear to 'transfer' an object, for example, a central idea, new information, or some distinguishable utterance part (see Bavelas, Chovil, Lawrie & Wade 1992; Kendon 1996). In Segment 8.6, three items on a list are 'handed over' by three consecutive installments of the gesture" (p. 187).

Waal ("holding out a hand"):
In chimpanzees, palm-up signs are used to beg for food, to invite bodily contact, and to seek support during a conflict: "We call the gesture with the extended arm and open palm 'holding out a hand'. It is the most common hand gesture in the colony" (Waal 1982, pp. 34-36).

NEURO-NOTES
Neuro-notes I. Upraised palms are gestural byproducts of an ancestral crouch display, a protective vertebrate posture designed to be defensive rather than offensive. Neural roots of palm-up cues thus reach back further in time than palms themselves--at least 500 m.y.a.--to protectivepaleocircuits for flexion withdrawal built into the aquatic brain & spinal cord. These circuits reflexively bend the ancestral body wall, neck, arms, and legs away from danger, while palms and forearms rotate upward through the action of primeval neck reflexes.

Neuro-notes II. Note that our palm-up rotations tend to be one-handed when stimulated by turning our head sideward, and when tilting it left or right--but two-handed when our neck is bent forward or backward (Kandel, Schwartz, and Jessell 1991). We do not ordinarily make conscious choices about the gesture, because we are too busy talking to notice or care. The emotions responsible for palms-up are located above the spinal cord in defensive areas of our forebrain's limbic system (notably the amygdala), passing through basal ganglia and brain-stem links to the cord below. Thus, our emotional brain unwittingly touches off flexor-withdrawal gestures designed to protect us from real and imagined harm, in jungles as well as in corporate boardrooms. That we do not deliberately gesture with palm-up cues places them among our most trustworthy signs.

Neuro-notes III. Mirror neurons: Mirror neurons provide brain circuitry that enables us--intuitively--to decode and understand the meaning of palm-up cues. When we see a palm-up hand gesture, mirror neurons set up a motor template, a prototype or blueprint in our own brain, that allows us to read the cue. Through links to the limbic system, there are also mirror neurons to help us decode its emotional nuances and meanings. We are seemingly wired to interpret the palm-up actions of others as if we ourselves had enacted them.
See also MIME CUE, POINT.




Photo of friendly, engaging, welcoming palm-up cue (picture credit: unknown)