In Chapter 3, you learned that some behavioral experts believe the hands display more emotion than any other part of the body. This is perhaps most true when you're talking about nervousness projected through hand movements. Someone who's anxious may pull out all the stops, using those hands to express every emotion she's experiencing at the exact moment those feelings strike her.
The Power of Touch
Anxious hands often engage in self-touch. Self-touches include things like wringing the hands, rubbing the face, clenching the fists, hugging oneself, cracking the knuckles, etc.
But why do anxious people feel the need to massage various parts of their body? The sense of touch is incredibly powerful — so powerful, in fact, that studies have shown that premature infants who receive massage fare better than those who don't. Parents use touch to soothe fussy babies and children. As adults, people learn that a simple touch from a boyfriend or girlfriend can cause more of an adrenaline rush than bungee jumping. In addition, the benefits of regular massage for adults — such as improved sleep patterns and a boosted immune system — have been documented in medical studies. In fact, today many hospitals employ massage therapists.
So from the first moments of life, you learn that touch has a magic, soothing quality. It's really no wonder, then, that during anxious moments you might use self-touches to calm your nerves.
There are all sorts of self-touches that are used to soothe the nerves. Running your hands through your hair, pulling on an earlobe, or touching the back of the neck are indications that you're feeling out of sorts and attempting to calm your nerves.
Self-touches centering on parts of the body with high nerve concentrations (such as the area around the lips) may be more comforting than other sites on the body, but this probably depends on the person and the cause of his anxiety. As you might imagine, mental health plays a role in the kinds of touches one might find most soothing. A person who has a slight case of nerves due to an upcoming job interview might find the around-the-chin-and-mouth rub very comforting, but it's probably safe to say that someone who has an irrational worry (for example, someone who's concerned that a meteor is going to hit his house at any moment) is experiencing an entirely different, more severe type of anxiety. His self-touches will probably be more pronounced (he might, for example, hug himself or wring his hands) because he needs more comforting.
Self-touches may just be comforting methods or could reveal a hidden anxiety.
One form of self-touch, called dermatillomania, also referred to as compulsive skin picking (CSP), afflicts men and women suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. These people are compelled to pick at the skin until it bleeds. Obviously, most people wouldn't find comfort in this sort of self-touch, but the relief that these people experience is real.
Self-touches can also indicate lying, uncertainty, or even a certain amount of hostility. All of these emotions are based in anxiety; the difference is that anxiety itself is classified as a mental illness, so someone can be suffering from anxiety without an external cause. In other words, where one person might be exhibiting signs of nervousness because he's been leading a secret life, another person can exhibit the exact same behaviors for no apparent (external) reason.
Of course, there are many, many kinds of self-touches. Someone who puts a finger up to her chin or to her head appears to be in deep thought; touching the nose is thought to be a sign of deception, as is rubbing the forehead; pulling at the hair indicates a high level of frustration.
Again, most of these emotions are rooted in anxiety, but some self-touches actually serve a specific purpose. For example, if you see your friend rubbing his stomach, he might have eaten too much. When your mother rubs her temples, she might be soothing away a headache. Someone who clasps his hands in a meeting is probably just using polite body language.
One touch to the back of the head indicates anxiety; in fact, this is a telltale sign of lying. Someone who puts both hands behind his head, however, is simply getting comfortable.
So what does this mean to you? It's a reminder that all body language is best interpreted through patterns of behavior and along with other nonverbal cues. One lone gesture, like wringing the hands, may mean little in and of itself, but combine that with darting eyes and tapping feet (which you'll read about later in this chapter), and you're looking at someone displaying a lot of nervous energy.
Tap, Tap, Tap
Every time you talk to your boss, he drums his fingers on his desktop. It drives you up the wall, and rightly so. Drumming the fingertips is widely considered to be a rude gesture, something that indicates profound boredom. But as you're learning more and more about body language, you're starting to wonder if perhaps you haven't been too hard on your boss. Maybe the man is suffering from chronic anxiety. Could this be the reason his fingers are tapping out a mysterious rhythm?
If you're in the habit of drumming out a song every time you have to sit for more than thirty seconds, stop. This gesture is considered impolite, a way of saying, “I don't have all day to sit here and listen to you drone on and on …”
Let's say you're the tabletop drummer and you know that you don't mean to be offensive by expressing yourself with your mad rhythms. In fact, you sing along with your finger-drumming, hence letting everyone know that you're simply into the music playing in your head. This doesn't lessen the annoyance factor. You have to realize that drumming is highly irritating to those around you. In this instance, your body language is saying “I don't care if you're annoyed. I must drum!”
The one place you can continue on with your hand-band is in the privacy of your own car or at home … and even then, your drumming should be suspended if someone else is occupying the seat next to you.