An important baton [i.e., speaking gesture] which ties him together with his [TV] viewers occurs when he [Phil Donahue] is seated with his elbows close to the body and his forearms stretch forwards [sic] at a 45 degree angle, palms wide open. --Walburga von Raffler-Engel (1984:13)

Gesture. 1. A speaking or listening gesture made with the fingers extended and the hand(s) rotated to an upward (or supinated) position. 2. A gesture made with the opened palm raised to an appealing, imploring, or "begging" position.

Usage: Uplifted palms suggest a vulnerable or nonaggressive pose that appeals to listeners as allies rather than as rivals or foes. Throughout the world, palm-up cues reflect moods of congeniality, humility, and uncertainty. (Palm-up gestures contrast with palm-down cues, which are more domineering and assertive-like in tone.) Accompanied by "palm shows," our ideas, opinions, and remarks may seem patronizing or conciliatory, rather than aggressive or "pointed." Held out to an opponent across a conference table, the palm-up cue may, like an olive branch, enlist support as an emblem of peace.

Anatomy. As Darwin (1872) noted, palm-up signs are part of a shoulder-shrug posture involving the entire body. Lifting a shoulder stretches trapezius and levator scapulae muscles of the neck, tilting the head toward the shoulders' high side. Head-tilt-side, meanwhile, excites muscle-spindle receptors in the neck, stimulating a posture designed to stabilize the head relative to the body and the pull of gravity, released by the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex or ATNR. In the shoulder shrug, the fingers on the neck's tilted side automatically extend as the hand rotates to a raised position, producing the palm-up cue. Rotation is due to contraction of the forearm's supinator muscle, stimulated by the 6th cervical nerve through the brachial plexus. The upper arm's prominent biceps muscle flexes the elbow joint and brings it closer into our body's side (i.e., adducts the arm at the elbow). Aiding supinator, biceps assists in rotating the palm to its uplifted position.

Culture. 1. In North Africa, cradling one hand in the other "with both in the palm-up position" means, "I don't understand" (Morris 1994, p. 105). 2. In Saudi Arabia, the supinated palms up gesture--made with the upper arms held inward against the sides of the body, and the forearms extended and held forward, horizontally--is a religious sign imploring the deity to witness a user's nonverbal statement, "I swear!" (Morris 1994:197). This Saudi cue incorporates the pancultural humility of the raised, supinated human hand.

Observations. 1. A sales representative appeals to her boss with a palm-up cue: "Do you really want me to fly out to Cleveland tomorrow?" 2. A teenager asks to borrow his mother's car, using a raised palm to plead: "Please, Mom?" 3. In Ghana, a tribal woman gestures with lifted palms after hearing that her husband favors polygamy: "What can we women do?" she asks hopelessly. 4. In the boardroom, a CEO appeals to his senior staff with a palm-up gesture and implores, "I need your help."

Psychiatry. In mental patients, "hands up" with "head up," followed by "hands drop," is a two phase gesture which comes from reaching up for help: "Pick me up" (Engel 1978).

U.S. politics. "Indeed, one of the reasons for Ronald Reagan's remarkable popularity in the United States today may well be his very liberal use of palm displays. How could anyone distrust a guy who is so genial, so disarming, so warm, and so comforting?" (Blum 1988:6-10).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. The first scientific study of palm-up gestures was conducted by Charles Darwin (1872), who saw them as signs derived from a larger shoulder-shrug display. 2. The open-palm-up hand-shrug is a sign of helpless uncertainty and confusion (Ekman and Friesen 1968; "The hand-shrug rotation . . . is an example of a nonverbal repetition of the verbal content; the rotating hands show a nonverbal inability to use the hands to do something, which parallels the verbal statements of uncertainty" [p. 209; Author's Note: This is a curious interpretation of the palm-up cue]). 3. In chimpanzees, palm-up signs are used to beg for food, to invite bodily contact, and to seek support during a conflict: "We call the gesture with the extended arm and open palm 'holding out a hand'. It is the most common hand gesture in the colony" (Waal 1982: 34-36). 4. Palm-up cues are used to ask "who," "what," "when," "why," "where," and "how" questions in diverse sign languages of the deaf from Papua New Guinea to Colombia and New York (Givens 1986). 5. Palm-up cues include: a. hand cradle ("I don't understand"), b. hands shrug (1) (a "disclaimer" in response to questions), c. hands shrug (2) (a "deceptive" speaking gesture), d. palms up (1) ("I implore you," used when public speakers "beg their audiences to agree with them"), and e. palms up (3) (widely used in religious prayer; Morris 1994:105, 137-8, 196-7).

READING PALM-UP SIGNS: Neurosemiotic Overview of a Common Hand Gesture (Accepted for publication [March 4, 2015] in Semiotica)

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-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 communication and vocal language (Bass and Chagnaud 2013). The meanings of palm-up cues are multifaceted and nuanced, and express varying degrees of emotional helplessness, cognitive uncertainty, prosodic emphasis, and social deference. By themselves, or in combination with other hand movements--such as reaching, showing, pleading, 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 gesture 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.

. . .


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 cue is a continuation of a movement pattern that has survived for hundreds of millions of years. In essence, you see a "gestural fossil" of great 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 and most important gestures.

The mystery of the universal 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 written. In the palm-up gesture, a hand or both hands rotate to an upward (supinated) position with the fingers partially or fully extended. Palm-up gestures and their accompanying speech acts evolved from an ancient neurological system that gave rise to both gestural communication and vocal language. 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 universal gesture of human tact, politeness, and deference.


Neuro-notes I. 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 thus reach back further in time than palms themselves--at least 500 m.y.a.--to protective paleocircuits for flexion withdrawal built into the aquatic brain & spinal cord. These circuits reflexively bend the ancestral body wall, neck, arms, and legs away from danger, while palms and forearms rotate upward through the action of primeval neck reflexes.

Neuro-notes II. Note that our palm-up rotations tend to be one-handed when stimulated by turning our head sideward, and when tilting it left or right--but two-handed when our neck is bent forward or backward (Kandel, Schwartz, and Jessell 1991). We do not ordinarily make conscious choices about the gesture, because we are too busy talking to notice or care. The emotions responsible for palms-up are located above the spinal cord in defensive areas of our forebrain's limbic system (notably the amygdala), passing through basal ganglia and brain-stem links to the cord below. Thus, our emotional brain unwittingly touches off flexor-withdrawal gestures designed to protect us from real and imagined harm, in jungles as well as in corporate boardrooms. That we do not deliberately gesture with palm-up cues places them among our most trustworthy signs.

Neuro-notes III. Mirror neurons: 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, there are also mirror neurons to help us decode its emotional nuances and meanings. We are seemingly wired to interpret the palm-up actions of others as if we ourselves had enacted them.


YouTube Video: Some terrific palm-up cues.

YouTube Video: Watch the man's palm-up hand gestures (along with self-touch and parallel-palms cues) used in a conversation.

Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of friendly, engaging, welcoming palm-up cue (picture credit: unknown)