Howard has had a longtime interest in psychology and human behavior and enjoys digging into the reasons why we do the things we do.
Our hands often take an active part in our communication. Whether consciously or not, our hands are often giving off signals.
One position we see over and over is the hand clasp. In general, clasping the hands signifies some kind of unsettling thought—fear, anxiety, insecurity and the like.
Keep in mind, we're assuming there isn't a simpler physical explanation. Someone could be clasping their hands simply because they feel a bit cold.
In this position, the hands are held together. There are a few variations and a few different placements for the hands that we'll consider:
- Palm to palm
- Fingers interlaced
- Fingers in palm
We'll also look at where the hands are being held in relation to the body.
Hands Clasped Palm to Palm
In this version, one palm is placed on top of the other. It's sometimes accompanied by slight rubbing. It's very similar to holding hands with someone, and this is a good hint for what it means.
It's used to increase our sense of security. Holding the hands this way maximizes the amount of contact, which means maximizing the comfort. This is the most soothing of the variations. It simulates the presence of a supportive person more so than any of the others.
This version is most likely to be seen when people feel extra anxiety, such as:
- In a hospital or doctor's waiting room.
- During a stressful financial negotiation.
- In the aftermath of intense criticism.
Hands Clasped with Fingers Interlaced
In this version, the fingers are intertwined and the palms are kept slightly apart. This is a close second on the comfort scale. There's lots of contact, and the weight of the fingers pressing into each other adds to the reassurance.
This version is often seen when people feel they're being scrutinized, such as:
- A person being interviewed on TV.
- Someone who has the groups' attention at a gathering.
Hand Clasp with Fingers in Palm
In this version, the palm and fingers of the top hand are wrapped around the fingers of the bottom hand. This one is at the lower end of the comfort scale, and is also the most artificial looking.
This gives us a hint as to what it means. The person doing it doesn't necessarily feel insecure, but they want a pose that looks suitably dignified.
This one isn't seen a lot, but it might be seen from someone:
- Attending a ceremony.
- Seated in a prominent place at an outdoor sporting event.
- At a charity event.
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Where are the Hands Being Held?
The position of the hands can vary—how high they are on the body and how close. In general, the higher they're held and the closer to the body, the stronger the anxiety.
When the person is seated, the hands will usually be clasped on the lap or on a table. The lap, or a table if it's near, is the most “regular” placement, and could be viewed as a baseline of mild insecurity.
It can also be done with the hands on the midsection and the elbows tight to the sides. This position provides more comfort due to the extra pressure on the torso, giving it a slight hugging effect.
Going up farther, the hands can be held in front of the throat with the arms touching the front of the body. This indicates a higher stress level, as the hands are now shielding the throat, a vulnerable part of the body. The self-touch from the arms adds to the soothing feeling.
Having clasped hands in front of the face or behind the head shows the highest level of distress. This version would most likely be seen when someone has received devastating news, such as:
- Finding out you've suffered a large financial loss.
- Hearing a friend has had a terrible accident.
- Hearing of the death of someone close.
It's fairly common to see the hand clasp when someone is standing. It's almost always the interlaced version, with the arms hanging.
This is a defensive posture, with the hands covering the mid-point of the body. It gives the impression the person thinks they're going to get kneed in the groin or punched in the stomach.
Rather than suggesting fear of a physical attack, it implies social insecurity. The person's defending against the possible judgments of those watching.
Left Thumb Over Right Thumb: Is Hand Clasping Preference Genetic?
It's estimated that 99% of the population has a preference for which thumb is on top in the interlaced version. This preference remains intact for a person's entire life.
Several researchers strongly suspect a genetic component to this preference, known as phenotype R or phenotype L. It's not clear whether it's dominant or recessive.
Whether the left or right thumb rests on top hasn't been linked to any personality traits.
Can We Make Reliable Judgments on Hand Clasping?
The hands are always tricky to judge because they're easy to keep under conscious control.
In a way, we're looking for these instances just as well as the unconscious ones because they reveal the person feels the opposite of what they're indicating.
As this isn't a powerful looking gesture, people wouldn't often want to assume it on purpose. The times we would usually see it are likely genuine. People who aren't showing any overt signs of anxiety might betray their unease with some hand clasping. Of course, it's always good to look for a pattern of movements rather than forming conclusions based on isolated gestures.
Someone who wanted to appear deeply moved when they really aren't could intentionally use the hand clasp in front of the face or behind the head. The context should help you decide how genuine it is.
A public figure who wants to look timid after committing a faux pas could use this gesture to complement his posture.
Don't forget to consider physical discomfort first. There's no point using our mental energy figuring out someone's psychological motives when they're just cold.
Overall, this position is fairly reliable for indicating some type of unease. However, the degree shouldn't be exaggerated, as it's rare for us to feel perfectly composed.