Wilde put both his hands down on his desk with a solid smack. --As Taggart Wilde snapped at private detective, Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, 1939, p. 109)

Gesture. 1. An insistent speaking or listening cue made with the fingers extended and the hand(s) rotated to a downward (or pronated) position. 2. A posture in which the hands and forearms assume the prone position used in a floor pushup.

Floor Pushup

Usage: While speaking or listening to another's remarks, palm-down gestures show confidence, assertiveness, and dominance. (Palm-down gestures contrast with the friendlier, and more conciliatory, palm-up cue.) Accompanied by aggressive, palm-down "beating" signs, our ideas, opinions, and remarks appear stronger and more convincing. In particular, the palm-down cue is highly visible above a conference table, where it is raised and lowered like a judge's gavel.

Anatomy. Military (i.e., floor) pushups involve muscles of a. the shoulder girdle (trapezius, pectoralis, serratus anterior, rhomboid) and upper arm (triceps); b. the forearm (pronator teres, pronator quadratus); c. the wrist (extensor carpi); and d. the digits (extensor digitorum). Braided nerve networks from the cervical and brachial plexuses coordinate the palm-down cue. Our forearm's pronator teres muscle is the prime mover, as innervation is supplied through the 8th cervical and 1st thoracic nerves, by way of the brachial plexus. Pronator quadratus, stimulated by the 6th and 7th cervical nerves, also plays a role.

Culture. In Greece, the pronated palms thrust or "Double Moutza" gesture, with the arms extended horizontally and thrust outward toward another person, is an insult with which to say, "Go to hell twice" (Morris 1994:196). Like other palm-down gestures with specific cultural meanings (e.g., the widespread hand wag for "No!", the Saudi hand slap for "contempt," and the Italian forearm thrust, which is used as a sexual insult [Morris 1994]), Moutza signals incorporate the pancultural aggressiveness of our pronated hands.

Evolution. "Divergence [spreading or abducting the fingers], generally associated with weight-bearing function of hand, is achieved by extension at the metacarpophalangeal joints. All mammalian paws are capable of this action" (Napier 1962:62; from caption to photograph of a pronated human hand with hyper-extended fingers).

Observations. 1. In the boardroom, a chairwoman uses a down-turned palm as a gavel to order, "Quiet, please!" 2. A mother disciplines her child using overturned palms to accent her words. 3. A Ghanaian tribal elder gestures forcefully with beating motions of his pronated palm to convince westerners that his wives do prefer polygamy. 4. An angry CEO warns senior staff, using a stiffened palm-down hand to accent his words: "Starting today, I will not accept late reports."

U.S. politics I. In the 1992 presidential debates, candidates Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and President George W. Bush filled the TV airwaves with palm-down cues to demonstrate the superiority of their ideas. The candidates' statements were analyzed, in turn, by political talk-show hosts, whose televised palm-down gestures added stature to their own ideas about the election process.

U.S. politics II. "Palms turned toward the floor send dominance signals . . ." (Blum 1988:6-11). "The hand that is on top in any given handshake signifies the dominant party" (Blum 1988:7-1). In October 1950, General Douglas MacArthur extended a palm-down hand to shake with President Harry S. Truman (Blum 1988). "Less than a year after this October handshake, Truman fired MacArthur because the president felt the general was too aggressive" (Blum 1988:7-3).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. In the workplace, management may use palm-down cues to delegate work assignments, announce new procedures, and outline official corporate goals. 2. Authoritative palms pronate as teachers profess, as lawyers dissent, and as financial planners advise. 3. Common palm-down signs include the corporate table-slap, the athlete's high-five slap of victory, and the football fan's two-fisted triumph display (see ANTIGRAVITY SIGN). 4. Palm-down cues have been observed as anger signs in infants and children (Blurton Jones 1967, Givens 1978b). 5. Push and flat gestures appear in Grant's (1969) and Brannigan and Humphries' (1972) checklists of universal signs. 6. Palm-down signs are diagnostic of a dramatic or dominant nonverbal style (Norton 1983). 7. Palms down is a worldwide speaking gesture used to "hold down" an idea or "calm down" the mood of an audience (Morris 1994:194-95). 8. Palms front, made with hyperextended wrists and pronated palms, shows "I disagree" or "I hold you back" (Morris 1994:195).


Birdwhistell (I can find no palm-down-like cue listed in his 1952 book, Introduction to Kinesics).

Linguistic analogy; like other hand gestures, palm-down cues would likely be interpreted as displaying the grammatical structure of speech.

Darwin (disgust, annoyance, "push away," "guard oneself against" [Darwin 1872, p.256]):

"But as disgust also causes annoyance, it is generally accompanied by a frown, and often by gestures as if to push away or to guard oneself against the offensive object" (Darwin 1872, p. 256).

Efron ("batons")

Italian versions of the palm-down cue

Ekman & Friesen ("illustrators," "batons," illustrate verbal speech):

"Illustrators are socially learned, primarily through imitation . . ." (Ekman and Friesen 1969, p. 69)

Ferre ("beat gestures"):

Givens ("palm-down"):

An insistent speaking or listening cue made with the fingers extended and the hand(s) rotated to a downward (i.e., pronated) position (see above). From Givens's doctoral dissertation: "Palm-down movements accompanied firm, decided statements that occurred in usually argumentative situations. There was no apparent doubt, uncertainty, or pleading for the partner's acceptance, but rather an assertive expression of conviction and confidence" (Givens 1976, p. 87).

Palm-down gestures often are assertion displays that carry social-emotional--rather than linguistic-semantic--meanings. Gestures made with the forelimbs (e.g., reptilian push-ups and our palm-down and palm-up cues) are basically "assertion displays" used to advertise (Greenberg 2002) and assert a sender's physical and socio-emotional presence ( physiological arousal state) to fellow species members. In Anolis lizards, for instance, an assertion display is a visual body movement--such as a push-up to a high-stand above the earthly plain--that is designed to attract notice toward the displayer (Fleishman and Pallus 2010).

That in human beings palm-down assertion gestures normally accompany speech is due, in part, to an ancient neural link between vocalizing (speech) and forelimb signaling (gesturing with the hands). Muscles that today move the human larynx and pectoral girdle evolved from hypobranchial muscles that originally opened the mouths and gill openings of ancient fishes. Neurocircuits that mediate our laryngeal and pectoral movements are connected in the posterior hindbrain and anterior spinal cord (Bass and Chagnaud 2012).

Excerpts from An Ethological Approach to the Study of Human Nonverbal Communication (Givens 1976):

George used 16 palm-down gestures, exclusively with Gail. "[George's] Palm-down movements accompanied firm, decided statements that occurred usually in argumentative situations. There was no apparent doubt, uncertainty, or pleading for the partner's acceptance, but rather an assertive expression of conviction and confidence. The movements accompanied statements that, in the main, lacked subjective references to the self such as occur in phrases like 'I mean.' " (Givens 1976, p. 87).

Gail: "Downward movements of the hand, in a palm-downward position, occurred seven times with George and 13 times with Kris. The palm-down movements expressed emphasis, and usually accompanied primary stress and overloud or overfast paralanguage. Palm-down movements can be interpreted as mildly assertive expressions of confidence that communicated possibly a sense of certainty. They contrasted with the palm-upward movements of the shoulder-shrugging complex expressing uncertainty" (Givens 1976, p. 105).

Kris: "Downward movements of the hand, in a palm-downward position, were made seven times with Gail and four times with George. The palm-down movement was used twice in argumentative verbal contexts to emphasize a speaking point. It occurred twice near the end of the conversation with Gail in non-argumentative statements, accompanied both times by paralinguistic overloudness. The palm-down movements appeared to be mildly assertive behaviors, endowing the statements with a sense of confidence or conviction" (Givens 1976, p. 119).

Greg: Palm-down gestures ". . . were virtually absent" (Givens 1976, p. 127). Greg's body showed a great deal of immobility in his conversations with George, Gail, and Kris. The movements he did make were submissive-like: shoulders-forward, shoulder-shrugs, speech pauses, soft paralanguage, foot-on-foot postures, join-hands, rub-fingers, hand-to-neck, hand-to-chin, and downward-gazes (Givens 1976, pp. 127-29). "Greg spoke overwhelmingly about personal matters, about classes, [problems with] finances, [coping with] difficulties, and anxieties (e.g., fear of competition for grades). The verbal context of his conversations was uniformly one involving narration of personal concerns rather than argumentation, disagreement, or impersonal descriptions of objects and events" (Givens 1976, p. 129).

Kendon ("Open Hand Prone (OHP) family," "palm down")

". . . the palm of the hand faces either toward the ground or away from the speaker, depending on how the elbow is bent" (Kendon 2004, p. 248). OHP gestures ". . . all share the semantic theme of stopping or interrupting. . ." (Kendon 2004, p. 248). Conveys a "denial of alternatives" (Kendon 2004, p. 248).


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


This article explores ways in which the human nervous system encodes and decodes palm-down gestural signs, signals, and cues. Palm-down 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). By themselves or in combination with other hand movements--such as reaching, showing, and pointing--palm-down cues are used to emphasize speaking points, give directions, express disagreements, and issue commands. The palm-down hand is a possibly universal gesture of assertion, not unlike other commanding body-motion cues such as the raised fist, triumph display, forefinger point, hands scissor, overhand beat, chest beat, palm thrust, military goose-step, and sumo stomp in the wrestling ring. All are pronated limb positions used to convey volition, dominance, and strength. In form, function, and meaning, palm-down assertion cues precisely complement palm-up cues of tact, politeness, and deference.


Neuro-notes I. As we make a strong verbal statement, our palms may rotate downward, as if preparing our body to press-up to a postural high-stand. Like keeping upright without consciously deciding to do so, we beat the air about us with little awareness or willful intent to drive home our strongest points. The amygdala (acting through reptilian areas of basal ganglia [MacLean 1990, Grillner 1996]) may control our palm-down gestures. That we show dominance by pronating, extending, and figuratively stomping with our forelimbs reflects the amygdala's evolutionary kinship with the basal ganglia. While the former directs our emotional stance, the latter governs our stance in relation to gravity. Thus, slapping a desktop for emphasis is not unlike a sumo wrestler's ceremonial stomp in the ring. Both are postural displays that demonstrate stability, strength, and standing on the earthly plane.

Neuro-notes II. Palm-down derives from postural signs mediated by the basal ganglia via the brain stem's reticulospinal tract to motor neurons acting on muscles that control stance in relation to gravity.

See also GOOSE-STEP.

YouTube Video: Watch President Obama's authoritative, palm-down gestures as he talks about a serious issue.

Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of George W. Bush using a palm-down gesture to gavel home a speaking point. In his presidency, Mr. Bush rarely used conciliatory, patronizing, palm-up cues. Palm-down may be likened to the pronated hand position of a floor pushup (picture credits: unknown).