Thoughts: The Secret Language of Hands


This morning as I drove to my latest diner of choice, I passed two older women walking along the sidewalks in Salem (NY). They were engrossed in what was obviously an engaging conversation, walking fast, their faces animated as they spoke, their hands, clasped behind their backs as they walked.

All I could think is “How do they do that?”

I talk with my hands. I have pretty much done it all my life, and it seems to get worse as I get older. I have this image of me at 90, waving my arms like a madman as I talk to my grandchildren about something as prosaic as Sesame Street.

I am not sure where it comes from. Talking with our hands was not part of my family culture. I’ve had more than one friend comment on how my family had such calm conversations. And it was true. We’d sit around the kitchen table and talk, our hands in our laps or laying silent on the kitchen table. We were so… polite. That actually worked for me. It felt normal because that’s what I grew up with. To some of my friends though, it felt stilted, or unnatural. Obviously, they had more lively households. The only time I saw either of my parents use their hands to talk was when my father was angry with me. Then his hands would ball into fists and at times would pound into things. (never me, fortunately) to make his point or help him release that anger.

That alone should have kept me from using my hands to talk.

But somehow, once I went to college, my hands and arms seemed to come into their own. I can actually remember once having a conversation on a date early in my freshman year and halfway through the conversation I noticed my arms waving, my hands gesturing, and wondering “What the heck is THAT?”. I had no idea where it came from. I didn’t do that.

Only, of course, I did.

And I still do.

I’ve tried that thing where you sit on your hands and try to carry on a conversation. It doesn’t happen. You may as well put duct tape over my mouth.

I am not alone in this. It seems that for some of us, our bodies respond to our thoughts faster than we can process the words themselves, so our hands take over, trying to help us describe what we are thinking and the words follow behind. It’s only a tiny time gap, at times microseconds, not even enough of a delay that those watching and listening can sense it, but impatient humans as we are, we put our hands to work so we can communicate as quickly as possible while our words catch up. People who use their hands less have faster verbal processing.

Figures. I’ve always been a slow processor.

I don’t think of myself as someone who talks with his hands. Even after all these years of doing it, I still think of myself as that kid at the kitchen table having conversations with my family, hands gently folded together as we talk. But I’ve seen enough pictures of myself talking, and even some video when I give talks and I have come to realize while I am not quite flagrant, my hands almost never stay still when I speak. Only when I listen.

Sitting in the diner this morning, watching the other tables, I see people who talk with and without hands. I used to make all sorts of suppositions about the people themselves by how much they used their hands. I saw them as more passionate, more involved in life somehow. Now I find it’s just a wiring diagram. But that doesn’t change how I feel about it.

And in a way, science agrees with me. Science tells us that people who use their hands a lot don’t just seem more passionate, they generally are indeed more passionate, which explains the impatience to get it out. Even that few microseconds of delay processing the thoughts into words is too much of a delay, so our hands go right into waggling mode. It may or may not be that we hand talkers are more passionate about the subject itself, but we are more passionate in getting whatever is on our minds, out.

I’ll settle for that.

Why am I writing about this morning? There’s no life lesson in it. There’s nothing particularly creative in it. It’s just mental meanderings of a man who is in a rare place of peace today. Heck, I am so at peace today that if we were talking, I might even have my hands in my lap.

But not for long.

Be well. Travel wisely,



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