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Good Question: What Do Our Hand Gestures Mean?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Tuesday night's Republican primary debate brought out all kinds of hand gestures – from chops to pointing to what has been dubbed, in political circles, the "Clinton thumb."

Most of us probably use these kinds of hand gestures all the time without a second thought. So, what are we saying by using our hands? Good Question.

"Hand gestures tend to be like traffic cops," says Susanne Jones, a professor of nonverbal communication at the University of Minnesota. "They regulate the communications."

Jones says hand gestures are the largest group of human nonverbal behaviors and movement of the hands can activate the brain to help us find the right words.

"I am a hand roller as I'm thinking through something," said Abriana Anderson of Minneapolis.

Research shows students are more likely to learn material if they use hand gestures compared to students who don't.

Hand gestures can also help people emphasize important points, which was evident in the Republican primary debate.

"Most people are used to humans moving, but it's finding that fine line," said Roshini Rajkumar, a public speaking coach. "So, a little bit of hand gestures works, but too much is a distraction."

After watching Tuesday's debate, Rajkumar says repeated pointing, dramatic waving and one candidate's stabbing of a pen were distractions that took away from the words.

"Maybe that was a strategic move in a debate, but when you're sitting across from some colleagues or a prospective client or your child, I don't know if you want to be that aggressive with the hand gestures," she said.

She advises people to remain natural and ask friends or family whether their hand gestures would be considered too much.

"Ask around, do a self-check and then try to teach your one thing each week to just become a little more commanding," she said.

Nonverbal communication is also an important way people can show to others they are listening and engaged in a conversation. Hand gestures are one important way to communicate more about a person's intentions.

"We tend to use information from gestures as more honest and useful information," said Jones.

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