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NOV. 3, 2015: THIS PAGE CONTAINS MY 2016 SEMIOTICA ARTICLE ON PALM-UP HAND GESTURES (Vol. 2016, Issue 210, pp. 235-50). To see the entry for ZYGOMATIC SMILE, please click HERE.)

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

David B. Givens (copyright © 2016), Center for Nonverbal Studies, Spokane, Washington USA


This article explores ways in which the human nervous system encodes and decodes palm-up gestural signs, signals, and cues. Palm-up gestures and their accompanying speech acts evolved from an ancient neurological system that gave rise to both gestural (pectoral) communication and vocal (laryngeal) language (Bass and Chagnaud 2013). Meanings of palm-up cues are multifaceted and nuanced, and express degrees of emotional helplessness, cognitive uncertainty, prosodic emphasis, and social deference. By themselves or in combination with other hand movements--such as reaching, showing, and pointing--palm-up cues are used to begin speaking turns, ask questions, request favors, and share personal opinions, feelings, and moods. The palm-up hand movement is a possibly universal signal of deference, in Erving Goffman’s (1956) sense of the term, not unlike other deferential body-motion cues such as the anjai mudra, bow, curtsy, genuflection, kowtow, namaste, poussi-poussi, pranama, sampeah, and wai.

1 Introduction to palm-up gestures

The hand is the visible part of the brain. --Immanuel Kant

Palm-up gestures are used widely throughout the world (Morris 1994). In the palm-up, a hand or both hands rotate to an upward (supinated) position with the fingers partially or fully extended. The arm may be held straight or flexed at the elbow; the wrist may be flexed or extended.

Palm-up cues have diverse linguistic labels, including “raised open hands” (Darwin 1872); “cupped” and “extended hands” (Birdwhistell 1952, 1970); “hand shrugs” (Ekman and Friesen 1968); “baring the palms” (Hass 1970); “bowl-like gestures,” “palms oriented upward” (Scheflen 1972); “palm-rotations,” “palm-shows,” and “palm-up” cues (Givens 1976, 2005); “hands up” gestures (Engel 1978); “holding out a hand” (Waal 1982); “hand cradle,” “hands shrug,” and “palms up” cues (Morris1994); “palm-addressed” cues and “palm presentations” (Kendon 2004); “palm up open hand” (“PUOH”) cues (Muller 2004); “cup,” “lid,” and “tray” cues, and “flat open hand with palm turned upwards” (Mittelberg 2008); “open-handed supine” gestures (Streeck 2009); “holding” cues and “palm-up cyclic” gestures (Ladewig 2011); “hand flips,” “open-palm” gestures (Ferre 2012); and “conduit” gestures (McNeill 2012).

Palm-up cues have diverse interpretations as well. Darwin (1872) interpreted them as expressions of apology and helplessness. Birdwhistell (1970) characterized palm-up linguistically, as having the grammatical structure of speech. Ekman and Friesen (1968) viewed hand-shrugs as signs of helpless uncertainty and confusion. Ferre (2012) pictured palm-up as a marker of speaker prosody and intonation. Mittelberg (2008) viewed cupped hands as vessels to carry ideas. Muller (2004) saw palm-up as a means by which speakers “hold” and present ideas to listeners. Streeck (2009) viewed palm-up as a device to coordinate speaking turns.

2 Neurosemiotic venues

So many names and explanations for palm-up cues are due to multiple neurological venues which, individually and in combination, mediate them. In the gestures’ semiosis, at least six discrete nervous system areas govern the muscle contractions that rotate, upraise, and open a speaker’s hand(s):

1. Tactile-withdrawal venue (outgoing, efferent). Originating ca. 545 million years ago in the protochordate spinal cord, tactile withdrawal circuits represent the oldest venue for palm-up cues. The same protective withdrawal circuits underlie human bowing and shoulder-shrugging movements today. Regarding the shrug, via nerve links to vestibular and neck-reflex circuits the actions of upper trapezius muscles in shrugging rotate the palms to an upward position (see below, “Neurosemiosis I & II”).

2. Vocal-pectoral venue (efferent). Beginning ca. 500 million years ago in the ancient chordate spinal cord and hindbrain--in a shared caudal hindbrain, rh8-upper-spinal compartment--circuits for vocal-laryngeal and gestural-pectoral communication provide neural linkage between voiced words and forelimb cues (Bass and Chagnaud 2013).

3. Rhythmic-repetition venue (efferent). Dates to ca. 500 million years ago in vertebrate spinal-cord, brain-stem, and cortical-motor areas (Ghez 1991b). "Once initiated, the sequence of relatively stereotyped movements may continue almost automatically in reflex-like fashion" (Ghez 1991b, p. 534).

4. Midbrain-vision venue (incoming, afferent). Dates to ca. 380 million years ago in optic lobes of the amphibian midbrain (superior colliculi of the human brain). Today, sudden or looming hand movements may trigger midbrain vision centers, reflexively orienting faces and eyes to novel stimuli used to attract attention (see below, “Asserting”).

5. Emotional-core venue (efferent). Dates to ca. 150 million years ago in the emerging mammalian brain’s limbic system (MacLean 1990). Emotions are mammalian elaborations of vertebrate arousal patterns, in which neurochemicals step-up or step-down the brain's activity level, affecting the frequency and amplitude of palm-up cues.

6. Speech-area venue (afferent and efferent). Dates from ca. 65 million to 200 thousand years ago in cortical modules of the primate brain--and subsequently of the human brain (from Broca's to Wernicke's areas)--for laryngeal vocalizing and pectoral gesturing with the forelimbs.

Independently and in tandem with one another, these neurological venues mediate the use of palm-up cues in human face-to-face interaction. Each is explored below.

3 Uncertainty

A major meaning category for palm-up is uncertainty (Givens 2014b). Though not often classified as such, uncertainty is an emotion (Kagan 2007), a cognitive feeling of indecision, misgiving, or doubt. An argument in favor of uncertainty’s emotional status is its involvement in the shoulder-shrug display (Givens 1977). Like muscles that activate facial expressions of happiness, sadness, and anger, the upper trapezius muscle activating shoulder-shrugs and collateral palm-up movements is linked to limbic-brain modules by special visceral efferent (i.e., “emotional”), rather than by somatic (“unemotional”), nerves (see below, “Neurosemiosis I”).

Feelings of uncertainty suggest a connection between emotional and cognitive brain areas. According to Damasio (1994), an uncertain feeling is a secondary emotion, mediated by the limbic system (esp. the amygdala and anterior cingulate gyrus), and is linked to cognitive thought processes via circuitry in prefrontal, sensory, and association modules of the cerebral cortex.

That uncertainty evokes an emotional feeling is in little doubt. Feelings of uncertainty have been observed in monkeys and apes. Shoulder-shrugging has been seen in baboons (Papio ursinus) as a sign of fear and uncertainty, and as a response subsequent to the startle reaction (Hall and DeVore 1972). Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) give a characteristic vocalization. According to Goodall, "The huu of puzzlement . . . is directed toward such things as small snakes, unknown creature rustlings, dead animals, and the like" (1986, p. 131).

3.1 Neurosemiosis I

The palm-up gesture is one of 13 constituents in a larger shoulder-shrug display of uncertainty (Givens 2014a). The display originates from a protective crouch posture innervated by circuits for flexion withdrawal. The shoulder-shrug display was first identified by Darwin (1872), who noted instances of shrugging as a cue of helplessness in aboriginal Australia and North America, Africa, India, Malaya, and Micronesia.

In the shoulder component of the larger display, upper trapezius (mediated by CN XI, a special visceral nerve) and levator scapulae muscles lift the scapulas. Trapezius (assisted by pectoralis major, p. minor, and serratus anterior) medially rotates (i.e., ventrally flexes) the shoulders, as well. These muscular movements are incredibly ancient. "The trapezius of terrestrial vertebrates,” Cartmill and colleagues write, “seems to be derived from a muscle sheet in fish that runs down from the back of the head to the top of the gill-arch bones. In a fish, this muscle lifts the whole set of gills up dorsally when it contracts" (Cartmill et al. 1987, p. 224).

As a branchiomeric muscle, upper trapezius, like the facial muscles of expression, is emotionally responsive and may contract by other than conscious means. Upper trapezius is innervated by the accessory nerve (cranial XI), a special visceral nerve that also feeds into the larynx; thus, shrugs and softer, higher-pitch (i.e, submissive-like) voice tones may be given in tandem.

According to Xu and colleagues, both gestural-visual and vocal-auditory stimuli “. . . activate a common, left-lateralized network of inferior frontal and posterior temporal regions in which symbolic gestures and spoken words may be mapped onto common, corresponding conceptual representations. We suggest that these anterior and posterior perisylvian areas [Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, respectively], identified since the mid-19th century as the core of the brain's language system, are not in fact committed to language processing, but may function as a modality-independent semiotic system that plays a broader role in human communication, linking meaning with symbols whether these are words, gestures, images, sounds, or objects” (Xu et al. 2009).

3.2 Asking questions

Uncertainty may lead to verbal and nonverbal questioning. A question is an “interrogative sentence, phrase, or gesture” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 1483). So well suited are palm-up cues for interrogative statements that they are used around the world to request information and resolve uncertainty. Palm-up is employed to ask “who,” “what,” “when," "why," "where," and "how" questions in diverse sign languages of the deaf, from the U.S.A. to Colombia and Papua New Guinea (Givens 1986).

Goffman (1967) maintains that people place themselves in a state of social uncertainty--or ”jeopardy”-- when they ask a question. The receiver might react negatively, laugh, frown, or otherwise disapprove of the question. Thus, a harmless-seeming, deferential palm-up cue may be extended to appease the question beforehand, to show no harmful intent.

3.3 Neurosemiosis II

Why does a palm supinate when one asks a question? On the efferent (production) side, upraised palms are gestural byproducts of an ancestral crouch display, a protective vertebrate posture designed to be defensive rather than offensive.

Neural roots of palm-up cues reach back further in time than palms themselves--at least 500 million years ago--to protective nerve circuits for flexion withdrawal. These circuits reflexively bend the ancestral body wall--and later the neck, arms, and legs--away from danger. In monkeys, Graziano (2010) found that electrical stimulation of the brain’s polysensory area (in the precentral gyrus) elicits defensive shoulder shrugging, a movement that occurs naturally in response “. . . to tactile stimuli on the face and to visual stimuli looming toward the tactile receptive fields” (p. 462). That primate palms and forearms rotate upward in the process is due to actions of primeval neck reflexes originally designed for locomotion (Ghez 1991a).

Note that palm-up cues tend to be one-handed (unilateral) when stimulated by sideward head turns and tilting the head left or right, but two-handed (bilateral) when the neck bends forward or backward (Ghez 1991a). We do not ordinarily make conscious choices about these gestures. Emotions responsible for palm-up movements are located above the spinal cord in defensive areas of the forebrain's limbic system (notably the amygdala), passing through basal ganglia and brain-stem links to the spinal cord below. The emotional brain unthinkingly touches off flexor-withdrawal movements designed to protect from real or imagined harm.

On the afferent (reception) side, mirror neurons provide brain circuitry that enables us--intuitively--to decode and understand the meaning of palm-up cues. When we see a palm-up hand gesture, mirror neurons set up a motor template, a prototype or blueprint in our own brain, that allows us to read the cue. Through links to the limbic system, additional mirror neurons help us decode the gesture’s emotional nuances. “What has emerged from mirror-neuron research is that we are seemingly wired to interpret the nonverbal actions of others as if we ourselves were enacting them” (Givens 2014b, p. 78).

4 Social appeal

A second meaning of palm-up cues has to do with a signer’s presentation-of-self toward making a social appeal. The appeal may be to request a favor, a food item, or the time of day. In a more general sense, the request may be for a receiver to accept the sender’s vocally presented sentiment, thought, or idea. English “appeal” is an “earnest or urgent request, entreaty, or supplication” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 88).

Researchers have proposed several explanations for the palm-up in vocal presentations. Iconically, since it resembles the act of a hand in giving or receiving an object, some see the cue as equivalent to physically giving (i.e., actually handing over) a vocal disclosure to a listener. Muller (2004) sees the palm-up as involving a physical “presentation of discursive objects” (p. 252). Following Muller, Ladewig (2011) notes that “. . . the concrete action of holding an object on the open hand and presenting it to an interlocutor is mapped onto the abstract domain [of gestural] discourse.” Mittelberg (2008) describes the degree of a hand’s openness in the palm-up cue iconically, as well, with the English words “tray,” “cup,” and “lid” (p. 121); and pictures an idea as “sitting inside the cupped hand” (p. 129).

Iconic interpretations of palm-up as a literal “container” or “conduit” for linguistic concepts, however, are problematic. For decades the conduit metaphor has been proposed, most convincingly by McNeill (2005). Streeck (2009) describes the conduit metaphor as follows: “McNeill (McNeill 1992), following Reddy (Reddy 1979), has called those gestures that figure the exchange of talk during conversation as object-transfer ‘conduit gestures’: they picture and conceptualize the production and reception of talk as movement of physical objects along conduits between the participants” (p. 187). Streeck holds that such offering gestures “. . . appear to ‘transfer’ an object, for example, a central idea, new information, or some distinguishable utterance part” (2009, p. 187).

For a zoosemiotic perspective on container, conduit-like, or “offering” gestures, we turn to research on the pygmy chimpanzee or bonobo (Pan paniscus). In chimpanzees, palm-up hand signs are used to beg for food, invite bodily contact, and seek support during a conflict (Waal 1982). From a primate viewpoint the gesture is less about food objects themselves, such as grapes, than about the social relationship required to obtain them (see below, “Contingencies of relationship”). Moreover, while chimpanzee signs for “taking” (requesting) have been identified, none have been identified for “giving” (offering). Primate roots for an object-related conduit gesture appear to be lacking.

4.1 Neurosemiosis III

Primates have prehensile hands with which to grasp corporeal objects such as tree branches, insects, and fruit. Deliberate grasping is mediated by the frontal neocortex from the supplementary motor area. The latter brain area programs complex muscle contractions needed to open and close a hand “on purpose.” The supplementary area also helps coordinate arm postures required to support the hand movement itself. Simultaneously, primary motor cortex regulates the force with which a movement is exerted. Instructions from these areas descend through the corticospinal tract directly to spinal-cord circuits below, which instruct muscles in the forearm to open and close the hand.

The same neural schema would be involved in palm-up gestures of the conduit variety, should they exist. As indicated, palm-up cues are less about grasping objects or manually holding linguistic concepts than about expressing contingencies of social relationships. Hand movements involved in the latter are mediated by older neural pathways for tactile withdrawal, locomotion, and pectoral-laryngeal communication.

5 Prosody

A third meaning category for palm-up cues is prosody. The English word “prosody” comes from Greek prosoidia, “song sung to music” or “accent.” Linguistic prosody includes the accentuation, intonation, phrasing, rhythm, stress, and tonal qualities of speech. Nonverbally, prosody includes the duration, muscular tension, and rhythm of palm-up and other hand movements, and their interactions with allied speech events and bodily cues. Both vocal and nonverbal prosody play roles in the production and perception of human communication. Through them we are able to detect emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and uncertainty in utterances and body movements.

Others have noted a link between vocal and gestural emphasis. Ferre (2012) observed palm-up cues in speeches by members of the European Parliament. “Out of the 75 [emphatic] hand beats,” he noted, “only 10 are not produced in overlap with an emphatic stress, and reversely, only 8 emphatic stresses are produced without any co-occurring gesture (beat or other gesture type). As mentioned earlier, beats may assume different hand shapes. I consider the basic hand shape of a beat to be the open palm configuration. . .” (Ferre 2012, pp. 6-7).

5.1 Clues from autism

Bass and Chagnaud’s (2013) discovery that gestures and speech are neurologically linked on the production (efferent) side complements findings made on the receiving (afferent) side by Hubbard and colleagues in a study of gestures in children with autism-spectrum disorders [ASD]: “. . . typically developing children showed increased responses in right superior temporal gyrus [perception of melody and tonal pitch] and sulcus [responses to vocalizations] while listening to speech accompanied by beat [i.e., prosodic] gesture” (Hubbard et al. 2012, p. 606). In contrast, ASD children showed greater activity only in the visual cortex.

As Bateson (1987) noted, gestures are less about the words they accompany than about relationships between speaker and audience. Research on ASD supports his view. Specifically, two facets of autistic behavior stand out. First, ASD children may show little interest in the physical presence of others. Second, ASD children use significantly fewer hand gestures while speaking than are used by non-autistic peers. We explore what hand gestures “say” about social relationships below.

5.2 Neurosemiosis IV

Consistent with Bass and Chagnaud’s (2013) finding that hand gestures and words are neurologically coupled, Guellai and colleagues consider gestural and vocal prosody to be a unified system: “We draw the conclusion that spontaneous gestures and speech form a single communication system where the suprasegmental aspects of spoken language [i.e., prosody] are mapped to the motor-programs responsible for the production of both speech sounds and hand gestures” Guellai et al. (2014).

6 Blends

We have seen palm-up in tandem with uncertainty, questioning, self-presentation, and prosody. Palm-up may blend two or more of these categories, such as uncertainty and prosody, to form multifaceted hybrid signs. Palm-up cues may also blend with other hand gestures--such as pointing, pleading, and self-assertion--adding greater complexity still:

6.1 Pointing

Extending an index finger to direct attention to or indicate the presence or location of a person, place, or thing may be a universal human gesture. Morris (1994) considers the forefinger point a “worldwide” cue (pp. 85-6). At close quarters, pointing at another person is often considered aggressive, hostile (as in sorcery), and unfriendly. Since it focuses so much attention on a recipient, close-quarters pointing is generally frowned upon. Pointing may be softened, however, as in Japan, by directing a palm-upward hand toward another, instead of using a fisted, stiffened index-finger point.

6.2 Pleading

English “plead” means “To appeal earnestly; beg” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 1389). Reached toward a partner, palm-up may have a palpable imploring or pleading quality. From an evolutionary standpoint there may be an underlying primate basis for palm-up in the human context of pleading one’s case. Similar palm-up signals have been studied in great apes. Chimpanzees (Pan paniscus and P. troglodytes) use palm-up signs to beg for food, invite bodily contact, and request aid during conflicts with other chimps. According to Waal (1982), the apes’ palm-up cues are commonplace. "We call the gesture with the extended arm and open palm 'holding out a hand'. It is the most common hand gesture in the [P. paniscus] colony" (Waal 1982, pp. 34-36).

6.3 Asserting

Yet another facet of palm-up is self-assertion. To assert means “To put (oneself) forward . . . in an effort to make an opinion known” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 111). Nonverbally, the most basic meaning of any gesture is “I am here” (viz., “I am physically present”). As the poet Paul Celan wrote about the human handshaking gesture, “The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another” (Rankine 2004, p. 120). Celan’s poetic rendition of the handshake could also hold for the palm-up gesture.

In biology, gestures made with the forelimbs (e.g., the reptilian push-up to a high-stand and our own palm-up, palm-down, and handshake cues) may be interpreted as "assertion displays," as advertisements asserting a sender's physical presence to fellow species members (Greenberg 2002). In Anolis lizards, for example, an assertion display is a visible body movement such as a push-up that attracts notice toward the displayer (Fleishman and Pallus 2010).

That palm-up assertion cues accompany speech is due once again to the neural fiberlinks between vocalizing and forelimb gesturing with the hands. Muscles that today move the larynx and pectoral girdle evolved from hypobranchial muscles that originally opened the mouths and gill openings of ancient fishes.

Like all animal signs--from the ”head bobbing and hand waving of lizards, singing of whales or nightingales, cries of migrating geese, squeaking of mice, grunts of baboons“ (Trevarthen et al. 2011, p. 13)--palm-up gesticulations are adapted for social communication. In this regard palm-up differs little from the gorilla’s (Gorilla gorilla) chest-beating, the catfish’s (Synodontis schoutedeni) pectoral-fin squeaks, or the humpback whale’s (Megaptera novaeangliae) flipper-slaps. All are pectoral gestures tendered to announce physical presence. All may be accompanied, variously, by laryngeal words, vocal roars, drumming sounds (produced by swim bladders), and “singing” (emitted from a whale’s respiratory system).

7 Contingencies of relationship

Bateson (1987) proposed that palm-up and other gestures are less about semantic content of the words they accompany than about “contingencies of relationship” between speaker and listener (p. 372). From feline communication (of Felis catus), he introduced the notion of “μ-function” (after the Greek letter mu; a play on the English word mew, for the crying sound of a cat).

“When your cat is trying to tell you to give her food,” Bateson writes, “how does she do it? She has no word for food or for milk” (1987, p. 372). Instead of speaking, a cat communicates through characteristic nonverbal signs (e.g., mewing, nuzzling, and tail-up posturing) of a dependent kitten. Instead of “Milk!” the cat essentially says “Mama!” The latter message, Bateson maintains, is a nonverbal statement of dependency. Instead of using words the cat “talks in terms of patterns and contingencies of relationship” (Bateson 1987, p. 372).

The μ-function of palm-up is essentially a relationship message of deference (see below). Palm-up cues reach out to listeners in order to acknowledge, welcome, or compliment them--and to apologize for possibly offensive spoken words.

8 Deference

Heuristically, varied meanings of palm-up may be collapsed into the overarching category of deference. English “deference” means “Submission or courteous yielding to the opinion, wishes, or judgement of another” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 489). For Goffman (1956), deference in face-to-face meetings is honorific, politely toned, and appreciative. In his article on “The nature of deference and demeanor,” Goffman noted that deference “. . . is perhaps seen most clearly in the little salutations, compliments, and apologies which punctuate social intercourse, and may be referred to as ‘status rituals’ or ‘interpersonal rituals’ “ (1956, p. 478).

In an a priori apology, a speaker may telegraph momentary feelings of uncertainty through the palm-up cue. If as suggested uncertainty is an emotion, the face-to-face sharing of that emotion is a sign disclosing that one cannot recall, or does not know, something expressed or alluded to in the speech act itself.

8.1 Not knowing as weakness

As Bacon (1597) noted centuries ago, knowledge is power (ipsa scientia potestas est). If so, alternatively, not knowing is a form of weakness. In “The big and the small: toward a paleontology of gesture,” I suggested that both power and weakness may be expressed gesturally through visual contrasts in “social size” (Givens 1986, p. 146). More concretely, in a face-to-face conversation uncertainty may be shown through nonverbal gestures of “smallness.”

8.2 Gestures of smallness

Deferential gestures of smallness are widespread in the world’s cultures. Most involve a degree of bodily bending, folding, bowing, or flexing to make the human form look deceptively smaller. To a viewer, nonverbal small may be glossed as unassertive, compliant, and favorably disposed--which is to say, inherently deferential.

The South Asian anjali mudra of respect, for example, is given with a slight forward bowing of the head. The bow itself, as defined by Soukhanov (1992, p. 224), is “To bend (the head, knee, or body) to express greeting, consent, courtesy, acknowledgement, submission, or veneration.” The Western curtsy, too, is “A gesture of respect or reverence made chiefly by women by bending the knees with one foot forward and lowering the body” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 459). To genuflect is “To bend the knee or touch one knee to the floor or ground, as in worship” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 758). One may genuflect “To be servilely respectful or deferential; [or] grovel” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 758).

In East Asia one may kowtow: “To kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in expression of deep respect, worship, or submission, as formerly done in China” (Soukhanov 1992, p. 1000). Originating from Mandarin Chinese, kowtow means to lower and touch one’s head to the ground. Like the anjali mudra, the Hindu namaste, too, includes a slight body bow with the arms tightly flexed at the elbows and the palms pressed together--with the back of the thumbs pulled in close to the chest--to suggest that one has bowed to a partner’s divinity.

Yet another way to crouch and lower oneself deferentially is to touch a partner’s feet. Such is the case with the Indian pranama, in which elders’ feet are touched in humble shows of respect. (English “humble” derives from Latin humus, “ground.”) Yet another crouched position is the Cambodian sampeah, a polite, respectful gesture that includes flexed elbows, joined palms, and a slight bow. In prayers to Buddha, the sampeah’s body bow is lower still, and the joined palms descend toward the ground. Resembling the sampeah is the Thai wai, still another visual crouch, used to ask permission to enter or exit another’s home. One may also wai to make apologies.

Finally, among the most servile of human crouch postures is the Mossi (Burkina Faso) poussi-poussi. In the poussi-poussi, one removes shoes and headgear (which add height), sits with flexed knees, legs to one side, then lowers the body to ground level and throws dust on the head (Collett 1983). Like each of the deferential gestures of smallness above, the poussi-poussi is yet another cultural specimen from a worldwide inventory of nonverbal signs derived from the primordial vertebrate crouch.

8.2.1 Palm-up smallness

Like a polite curtsy or deferential kowtow, upturned palms, too, can signal smallness. In a study of begging in a Mexican city, Fabrega (1973) noted diminutive linguistic pleas, such as “Soy un pobrecito” (“I am a small poor one”), accompanied nonverbally by crouching, leaning forward, and limping. To add deference to a request for a favor, one may palm-up, stoop, bend, deflate, toe-in (tibial torsion, from the shoulder-shrug display), compress the body, speak in light tones, and become, as the French phrase it, courbe (“curved, crooked, or hooked”).

In this regard, Goffman (1956) might have included palm-up deference acts as “avoidance rituals.” “Avoidance rituals, as a term,” he writes, “may be employed to refer to those forms of deference which lead the actor to keep at a distance from the recipient. . .” (1956, p. 481). Nonverbal signs of smallness enable speakers to maintain social distance and enact a diffident, low profile in conversations.

8.3 Neusosemiosis V

“Keeping at a distance” and “low profile” are themes in the neurobiology of crouching. Crouch postures and diminutive size displays evolved to visually mimic the act of escape. Increased physical separation between bodies makes them "smaller" through the optical illusion of distance. Vertebrate crouch displays are formed of ancient bending motions designed to remove animals from danger. A reflexive act controlled by the spinal cord, bending the body moves it away from hazards, reduces its exposed surface area, and makes it look comparatively smaller in size.

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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