In addition to the entire gamut of emotions, the hands send some of the most obvious and immediate signs of nervousness, most of which are fairly easy to pick up on. People who wring their hands, pull on or bend their fingers, dig their nails into their fists, or drum their fingertips on the tabletop are often brimming with anxiety. But don’t be too quick to judge a hand by its motion.
Self-touches are another sign that all is not well with someone, and may include gestures like:
• Rubbing the face (e.g., the nose or the chin)
• Rubbing the forearms
• Crossing the arms in a tight hug
• Cracking the knuckles
• Clasping the hands together tightly
• Clenching the hands in a fist
These motions are comforting measures, even though some of them (like serious, dedicated hand wringing or digging the nails into any body part) appear to be painful. It’s the person’s way of assuring herself that everything is going to be all right. You’ll most often see these gestures when someone is distressed—which can mean that she’s nervous about being caught in a lie or that she’s crippled by an anxiety disorder.
The more severe a person’s anxiety, the more noticeable and drastic her hand gestures may be. For example, someone who’s a little nervous about a job interview might release some pent-up stress by clenching her hands in a fist and releasing them several times while she waits for her name to be called. You probably wouldn’t even notice what she was doing with her hands if you weren’t so tuned in to body language.
A person who’s telling a major lie—say, a spouse denying the affair he’s been carrying on for several months—might tightly cross his arms while he swears he’s been faithful. He’s almost literally protecting himself from the accusation and the ramifications of telling the truth. This is such a common gesture that it’s easy to underestimate or miss its significance in this scenario.
Morse Code for Boring
One more note on hands that can’t sit still: they can also convey extreme boredom. You’re unlikely to see ennui displayed in hand wringing or clenched fists; these moves are usually reserved for genuine nervousness. Boredom usually manifests itself through finger tapping, facial rubbing (including the head propped up on the hand), knuckle cracking—motions that serve to rouse the person (of course, the head propped in the hand only serves to keep that head off the desk in front of it). Since some of these gestures overlap with expressions of anxiety, you may have to use your skills of observation (including your knowledge of body language, naturally) to determine whether the knuckle-cracking kid sitting next to you on the subway is frightened about something or merely uninterested in his surroundings. (Chapter 9 contains more detailed information on nervous hands.)