Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Palms Up Gesture

photo: New York Times
Most gestures are inherently ambiguous. A wink, for example, can be an invitation or a warning. A wave can mean hello or go away.

Today I was trying to complete this phrase: palms up in a gesture of _____? I was stymied because that gesture seems to have an unusually wide range of possible meanings.

In Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance, Adam Kendon writes:

Open hand Supine (or “palm up”) family gestures…are used in contexts where the speaker is offering, giving or showing something or requesting the reception of something. It also includes gestures in which, very often, both hands, sustained in the Open Hand Supine pose, are moved away from one another, as if being withdrawn from the space immediately in front of the speaker. The semantic theme of these gestures is that of the withdrawal of action or of non-intervention.

I did a Google search and found Kendon’s explanation to be generally accurate, but writers who utilize this gesture in their works stretch it much further. Here is the surprisingly long, and in parts contradictory, list I assembled from just the first 75 or so Google hits.

Palms up in a gesture…

of acceptance
of amazement
of apology
of benevolence
of blankness
that states, “Case closed”
of clueless irritation
of defeat
of dismissal
that drove home the point
that seems French
of futility
of giving
of greeting
of helplessness
of hopelessness
of ignorance
of incredulity
of innocence
of invitation
of invocation
of magnanimity
of openness
of peace
of pleading
of prayer
of receptivity
of resignation
that asks, “So nu?”

of submission
of supplication

of surrender

of thanks

that states, “There you have it”
that states, “This is easy”

of vulnerability

that asks, “What can I do about it now?”  
that asks, “What the hell is your problem?

that asks, “What’s up
?”

Gesture, because it is non-verbal, opens itself to ambiguity when it is translated into human language. But such ambiguity engenders flexibility and with that comes creativity.

So nu? Palms up. What’s your problem? There you have it!

5 Comments

  1. Ladd Biggerstaff says:

    I just threw up my hands when I read this.

  2. Gene C says:

    I’d say most modes of communication–words, gestures, images, or music–are inherently ambiguous. Context shapes meaning and understanding.

    As with gestures, most words have multiple meanings.

    “Shut up!” in one setting means “Stop talking,” and in another the same words mean “I’m amazed by what you just said.” Context, including tone of voice, guides the listener to (or at least toward) the intended meaning.

    Context includes occasion, speaker, audience, gesture, tone, etc., to provide nuance leading to correct understanding.

    Everyone who ever sent a complex email to multiple recipients in a business setting has learned how ambiguous language can be. Emails are often inherently ambiguous, since they are a poor medium for communicating tone, irony, humor or any other nuance.

    Everyone listening to a symphony hears a different performance, as exemplified by a great scene in Forster’s Howard’s End (with thanks to a recent article in The New Yorker for reminding me of this scene).

    In the movie Mean Girls, Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan) is asked why she likes math, and she answers “because it’s the same everywhere.” You know better than I do if that is an accurate description of the universal language of mathematics.

    My boss for much of my working life always wanted to move past words as quickly as possible and get to the numbers. He’d read my report and say, “How much are we talking about?” He correctly interpreted my shrug and upturned palms as, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” never “I don’t care.” Context gave nuanced meaning to the multi-purpose gesture.

  3. nisg says:

    what do they mean “that seems french”?

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