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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Parm Down


Wilde put both his hands down on his desk with a solid smack. --As Taggart Wilde snapped at private detective, Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, 1939, p. 109)



Gesture1. An insistent speaking or listening cue made with the fingers extended and the hand(s) rotated to a downward (or pronated) position.2. A posture in which the hands and forearms assume the prone position used in a floor pushup.



Usage: While speaking or listening to another's remarks, palm-down gestures show confidence, assertiveness, and dominance. (Palm-down gestures contrast with the friendlier, and more conciliatory, palm-up cue.) Accompanied by aggressive, palm-down "beating" signs, our ideas, opinions, and remarks appear stronger and more convincing. In particular, the palm-down cue is highly visible above a conference table, where it is raised and lowered like a judge's gavel.


Anatomy. Military (i.e., floor) pushups involve muscles of a. the shoulder girdle (trapeziuspectoralis, serratus anterior, rhomboid) and upper arm (triceps); b. the forearm (pronator teres, pronator quadratus); c. the wrist (extensor carpi); and d. the digits (extensor digitorum). Braided nerve networks from the cervical and brachial plexuses coordinate the palm-down cue. Our forearm's pronator teres muscle is the prime mover, as innervation is supplied through the 8th cervical and 1st thoracic nerves, by way of the brachial plexus. Pronator quadratus, stimulated by the 6th and 7th cervical nerves, also plays a role.

Culture. In Greece, the pronated palms thrust or "Double Moutza" gesture, with the arms extended horizontally and thrust outward toward another person, is an insult with which to say, "Go to hell twice" (Morris 1994:196). Like other palm-down gestures with specific cultural meanings (e.g., the widespread hand wag for "No!", the Saudi hand slap for "contempt," and the Italian forearm thrust, which is used as a sexual insult [Morris 1994]), Moutza signals incorporate the pancultural aggressiveness of our pronated hands.

Evolution. "Divergence [spreading or abducting the fingers], generally associated with weight-bearing function of hand, is achieved by extension at the metacarpophalangeal joints. All mammalian paws are capable of this action" (Napier 1962:62; from caption to photograph of a pronated human hand with hyper-extended fingers). 

Observations1. In the boardroom, a chairwoman uses a down-turned palm as a gavel to order, "Quiet, please!" 2. A mother disciplines her child using overturned palms to accent her words. 3. A Ghanaian tribal elder gestures forcefully with beating motions of his pronated palm to convince westerners that his wives do prefer polygamy. 4. An angry CEO warns senior staff, using a stiffened palm-down hand to accent his words: "Starting today, I will not accept late reports."
U.S. politics I. In the 1992 presidential debates, candidates Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and President George W. Bush filled the TV airwaves with palm-down cues to demonstrate the superiority of their ideas. The candidates' statements were analyzed, in turn, by political talk-show hosts, whose televised palm-down gestures added stature to their own ideas about the election process.
U.S. politics II. "Palms turned toward the floor send dominance signals . . ." (Blum 1988:6-11). "The hand that is on top in any given handshake signifies the dominant party" (Blum 1988:7-1). In October 1950, General Douglas MacArthur extended a palm-down hand to shake with President Harry S. Truman (Blum 1988). "Less than a year after this October handshake, Truman fired MacArthur because the president felt the general was too aggressive" (Blum 1988:7-3).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. In the workplace, management may use palm-down cues to delegate work assignments, announce new procedures, and outline official corporate goals. 2. Authoritative palms pronate as teachers profess, as lawyers dissent, and as financial planners advise. 3. Common palm-down signs include the corporate table-slap, the athlete's high-five slap of victory, and the football fan's two-fistedtriumph display (see ANTIGRAVITY SIGN). 4. Palm-down cues have been observed as anger signs in infants and children (Blurton Jones 1967, Givens 1978b). 5. Push and flat gestures appear in Grant's (1969) and Brannigan and Humphries' (1972) checklists of universal signs. 6.Palm-down signs are diagnostic of a dramatic or dominant nonverbal style (Norton 1983). 7. Palms down is a worldwide speaking gesture used to "hold down" an idea or "calm down" the mood of an audience (Morris 1994:194-95). 8. Palms front, made with hyperextended wrists and pronated palms, shows "I disagree" or "I hold you back" (Morris 1994:195).

Neuro-notes. As we make a strong verbal statement, our palms may rotate downward, as if preparing our body to press-up to a postural high-stand. Like keeping upright without consciously deciding to do so, we beat the air about us with little awareness or willful intent to drive home our strongest points. The amygdala (acting through reptilian areas of basal ganglia [MacLean 1990, Grillner 1996]) may control our palm-down gestures. That we show dominance by pronating, extending, and figuratively stomping with our forelimbs reflects the amygdala's evolutionary kinship with the basal ganglia. While the former directs our emotional stance, the latter governs our stance in relation to gravity. Thus, slapping a desktop for emphasis is not unlike a sumo wrestler's ceremonial stomp in a ring. Both are postural displays that demonstrate stability, strength, and standing on the earthly plain.
See also GOOSE-STEP.


Photo of George W. Bush using a palm-down gesture to gavel home a speaking point. In his presidency, Mr. Bush rarely used conciliatory, patronizing, palm-up cues. Palm-down may be likened to the pronated hand position of a floor pushup (picture credits: unknown).