I want my hands to learn how to dance!
January 13, 2006 11:41 AM   Subscribe

How can I become more expressive with my hands when I'm talking to people?

When you see Italians (or Mediterraneans in general) talking their hands are all over the place punctuating the conversation and drawing pictures for their companion, and I'm jealous. I want my hands to talk with me, I really like that animated style of conversation, and I find it sort of sensual and more alive. I've decided I want my hands not to be a pair of dead fishes on the table when I'm talking to someone, but can't figure out what to do with them or how to get started. Can this skill be learned as an adult or do you have to grow up in a family that does it? I embarrass easily so it's hard for me to just start gesticulating in a conversation when I don't have a real sense of what my hands should be doing, exactly. It seems like it's a whole language of gesture and I don't know how to get started learning the "words" so I can start saying my own "phrases" with my hands at the same that I'm talking.
posted by evariste to Human Relations (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
whenever you're talking just raise your hands to be in front of you, a little below your throat, and don't let them drop. i figure it's super embarassing to be doing that and not have them moving around, so eventually you'll start being cool and get them shakin' shakin'.
posted by soma lkzx at 11:57 AM on January 13, 2006

What's your general conversational style? Are you really animated in general? More soft-spoken? That's going to dictate what works for you.

I talk with my hands a LOT (when I was a tourguide, I warned people not to stand too close to me for fear they'd be hit), but I usually don't get going unless I'm riled up about something (read: angry, drunk, or telling a really good story).

If you're not particularly animated vocally, I think it might be hard to get your hands going. There was a great line in Updike's The Witches of Eastwick, though, along the lines of women "in the hardware store, sketching the thingamabobs and whatchamacallits in the air with their hands." That's definitely something I used often as a tourguide and actor -- if you're talking about something tangible that's not in front of you, indicating its shape or function or whatever with your hands.

At a sushi dinner last night, the Japanese waitress brought over a dish; when we asked her what it was, her English failed her, and she said, "Squid...." and started gesturing emphatically by pushing her flat hand down her legs again and again and finished with "Squid... foot." It was totally charming.

I think "emphatic" is key. Waving your hands around limply looks silly. Commit to whatever silly gestures you're making.
posted by occhiblu at 11:57 AM on January 13, 2006

Oh, and wine glasses, cigarettes, pens, and other handheld props can help. Put one in my hand and there's pretty much no chance I don't want to start waving it around.
posted by occhiblu at 11:58 AM on January 13, 2006

(when I was a tourguide, I warned people not to stand too close to me for fear they'd be hit),

Hah! I'm the same way, and I'm not even a tour guide. People who know me learn pretty quickly to leave a little space between me and them when I'm telling a particularly exciting story, as I have been known to knock eyeglasses off faces at times.

I dunno where it comes from; I guess I just use my hands to kind of "act out" words or emotions while I'm talking. (I actually had to learn to bring it under control at work over the past few years, because I found it could make me seem younger/less professional at times.) Evariste, maybe try standing in front of a mirror and telling a story, using simple gestures to emphasize key words/moods?
posted by scody at 12:03 PM on January 13, 2006

Carefully observe someone whose gesticulation style you like. Pick one gesture that appeals to you, and notice in what contexts it's used. Start emulating the motion in the correct context (e.g., to emphasize a particular word, to show the shape or size of an object, to drive home that you're making a strong point). Practice. After a lot of conscious use, it will become your own, something you do without thinking. Choose another gesture, and repeat. After two conscious choices, I'd think that you will be on your way to creating your own--gesture begets gesture--but if you're not, just rinse and repeat.

That said, I wouldn't attempt this. Throughout my life, including well past the point of junior-high-style humiliation, I have been singled out for what are apparently my overly expressive hands. (It probably doesn't help that they're big hands, for a lady.) Lots of Americans seem to think that this is funny. It's just the way I am--I didn't affect these movements, but it stands out in a way that has led to some embarrassment for me--and you say that you want to avoid that. I've tried to tone down my movements over the years.

But yeah, I'd recommend the method above if you still want to go ahead with it. That's basically how I learned to dance to pop music.
posted by CiaoMela at 12:04 PM on January 13, 2006

Observe and experiment -- the people you're with, the diners at the next table, the guy holding a cell phone conversation on the street, TV talk shows. See what works for you, what you're comfortable with. Start out slow and build your portfolio of gestures. Some of the most expressive communicators are politicians. Watch the Sunday news shows (Meet the Press, Face the Nation), and see how good communicators get their points across with both words and gestures. Of course, politicians never answer a direct question with a direct answer, but that's another point.
posted by terrier319 at 12:11 PM on January 13, 2006

any kind of conversational style is a mannerism, which are usually naturally picked up just by lots of exposure. live in the south, pick up a twang; live in france, stop aspirating your H's. all you have to do is spend a lot of time around and in conversation with people who do X, and you'll just naturally pick up X. it helps if you live in a place where *everyone* talks like X, so i guess if you're really serious about it, you could move to italy or something.

also, people seem to gesture more if they're talking enthusiastically about things that excite them. maybe you're having boring conversations, or maybe you're not really engaging with the people you talk to.

Can this skill be learned as an adult

how is this a skill? i mean, i can understand wanting to have a different conversational style - certain things are more attractive to certain people - but what benefit is there other than vanity here? this reminds me of people who affect english accents because they're cool - well, maybe they are, and maybe they're not, but you're not english so why pretend?

i'm not trying to be snarky, i just don't see why this is worth working on when you could be improving yourself in a multitude of other ways. it's like trying to change the color of your eyes or something - why not just accept that you're a calm sort of conversationalist and love yourself anyway?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 12:13 PM on January 13, 2006

I started doing this when I was taking Italian lessons. So you could try that — although in my case it didn't transfer back to my English.
posted by smackfu at 12:29 PM on January 13, 2006

I dunno, I've got Baltic/Irish blood and I gesticulate wildly, all the time, and it leads to spilled wine, broken glasses, and smacking waiters who've sneaked up behind me, but yes, it's very lively. To throw yourself into it I suggest playing charades, or any other games where you must act out or describe things with your hands, and your whole body--facial expressions too. If you're too shy have a medicinal glass of wine. Then in normal conversation I'd start by using your hands as you describe obvious visual things, "the vase was this big", or "I wanted to strangle him". Visit someplace where you don't know the language and you've got to speak with your hands. Hang out with me and monkey see.
posted by tula at 12:33 PM on January 13, 2006

The Rumsfeld Technique.
posted by glibhamdreck at 12:52 PM on January 13, 2006

Learn sign language.
posted by hortense at 12:56 PM on January 13, 2006

I have always gestured wildly while speaking, particularly if I am talking about something I am passionate about, but I come from a family of "hand talkers". I am inclined to believe as someone else mentioned, it comes about naturally from exposure to others who do it. Hortense's suggestion to learn sign language sounds like a good one as it might get you used to thinking with your hands and moving them while speaking.

The thing I would think it's important to be careful of is the gestures looking forced or thought out ... in the way that many politicians look to me when they are using their hands while giving a speech. It looks choreographed and fake. Maybe watch other people's gestures and then practice in front of a mirror to see which ones feel "natural" to you.

Not that these links are going to help you learn how to gesture, but they do explain conversational hand gestures as communication, and may give you some ideas. :)

David Brittan: Talking Hands
Gestures of Conversational Presence
Talking with Our Hands:
Manual Dexterity: Your distinct hand gestures can extend the reach of your communication
Krauss : Gestures
posted by Orb at 2:42 PM on January 13, 2006

Here's something to think about. I picked this up when I lived in Italy for a few years, and I have to say that once you start it's hard to stop. I noticed that here in the States people are distracted by my motioning. They'll look at my hands and then back to my face as if they have forgotten what I was talking about.

These days it works best for me when I'm in story-telling mode, because people aren't waiting for cues to enter the conversation. Just a thought. Have fun!
posted by snsranch at 5:04 PM on January 13, 2006

Toastmasters offers some booklets on this. You might join if you've any interest at all in improving your communication skills (the booklet is part of the introductory package), or ask around and see if you know anyone who is a toastmaster who could order you or lend you their copy of Your Body Speaks.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:20 PM on January 13, 2006

Remember that this isn't a settled language; gesturing doesn't exactly have a standard. Just waving your hands around vaguely is fine. Exact, literal movements might be a little advanced at this stage. You might try a prop, like holding a pen. It may help you lose some... umm... "hand tension", I guess. Playing with a prop might help your hands break out of their rut. Maybe you could try swinging your arms or something while you talk (if you're standing up, of course) to loosen up a bit. Try telling yourself the story of your day, or a childhood memobry, or some other story-like thing, in the mirror, using way exaggerated movements. Imagine telling a story to children. This will probably look ridiculous, but it may help, again, with loosening up. I gesture naturally and without consciously realizing it, so YMMV. Think of it as adding italics in writing; it helps emphasize certain words and adds a little color, but it isn't necessary and you can get along fine without it.
posted by MadamM at 7:44 PM on January 13, 2006

Take a class in improv comedy. You'll get more comfortable in any "on stage" situation, and you need to use your hands while acting.
posted by frogan at 7:58 PM on January 13, 2006

Lots of great ideas, thanks, everyone!
posted by evariste at 9:21 PM on January 13, 2006

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