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Palm-up Article

READING PALM-UP SIGNS: Neurosemiotic Overview of a Common Hand Gesture

By David B. Givens, Center for Nonverbal Studies, Spokane, Washington USA

9 Conclusion

If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. You are the continuation of each of these people. --Thich Nhat Hanh (Willis 2003, p. 141)

What you are seeing when you watch a palm-up sign is a continuation of a movement pattern that has survived for hundreds of millions of years. In essence, you see a “gestural fossil” from antiquity that continues to broadcast today. Paraphrasing Hanh’s epigraph, if you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see one of humankind’s oldest gestures.

The mystery of the palm-up gesture is perhaps best expressed by inserting it into the famous passage by Edward Sapir: “. . . we respond to [palm-up] gestures with an extreme alertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all” (Sapir 1927, p. 556).

It is the author’s hope that the “secret code” is now deciphered. In the palm-up, a hand or both hands rotate to an upward position with the fingers extended. Palm-up cues and their accompanying speech acts evolved from an ancient neurological system that gave rise to both hand gestures and vocal speech. Supinated palms are used to begin speaking turns, ask questions, request favors, and share personal opinions, feelings, and moods. The palm-up hand may be understood as a possibly universal gesture of human tact, politeness, and deference.
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