Body Language 60 Behind Your Back

December 27, 2019

When you have your hands behind your back, it can be interpreted in several different ways. It often is interpreted as apprehension or frustration. Some people link the gesture with anger. You really need to look for additional signals to interpret this gesture.

When shaking hands

Normally we shake hands by extending the right hand forward to meet the other person. There are special circumstances, like a surgery, that force a different approach, but the usual configuration is with the right hand forward. What we do with the left hand is optional and may provide some insight.

According to body language expert Bill Acheson, what you want to see is the non shaking hand moving forward and slightly upward as the other person approaches. That shows a positive desire to meet you, according to Bill. He describes and demonstrates the movement in the referenced video.

What you do not want to see is the other person hiding his left hand by putting it behind his back or in his pocket. That shows a negative feeling toward you.

When you are hiding a secret

When you hold one or both of your hands behind your back, it is often interpreted as having something you are trying to hide. Generally the gesture is figurative, but it could actually be literal, as in when a man hides flowers behind his back as he rings the doorbell of his girlfriend.

A gesture of openness with the hands is with the hand extended slightly forward with palms up. Keeping the hands out of sight begs the question, “what is he hiding from me.”

At ease

In the military world, when soldiers are asked to assume the “at ease” position, it means to put both hands behind their back and stand with feet apart in a comfortable stance. The connotation for some people of putting their hands behind their back is an indication of standing in a relaxed position.

Don’t know what to do with my hands

For some people, the hands behind their back is simply that they are feeling awkward at the moment and do not know what to do with their hands. You can see this movement often with shy children when they are put in the spotlight.

Defenseless and Vulnerable

Hands behind the back leaves the solar plexus, the one part of the body that is not protected by a skeletal structure,open and vulnerable. It can, therefore, be a signal of submission.

The gesture of putting hands behind one’s back can have so many different meanings that, like most body language signals, you need to consider the circumstance or look for other corroborating gestures before trying to assign a specific meaning to the gesture. Also, just as with nearly all body language, the meaning can be specific to a particular culture.

For example, when you are meeting a businessman in the Netherlands, you should avoid standing with your hands in your pocket and never leave your left hand in your pocket while shaking hands with your right (1).

Once you start looking for it, you will see examples of the hands behind back gesture in many social and business settings. Just remember that you cannot assume a precise meaning to this posture without further information. For sure something is going on, but you will need to explore a bit to determine exactly what it is.

(1) Kiss Bow or Shake Hands by Morrison, Conaway, and Borden 1994

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Group Punishment

June 30, 2013

Child punishmentIf you have siblings, you remember the drill very well. Your mother comes in and says, “Who knocked over the lamp in the living room?” Of course, nobody knows. She looks around at the children, and each of them is playing dumb. Since she cannot determine whom to blame, she announces the punishment, “Then none of you will get dessert for the rest of the week.”

Group punishments for the sins of a single individual are more common than we think. It happens in the military on a daily basis. If nobody owns up to a misdeed, the entire platoon is penalized with the same punishment as the single guilty soldier would have received. The logic is that one person really is guilty, and the remaining people are guilty of covering up for him, so everyone suffers equally. The leverage is that it puts peer pressure on the guilty person to fess up. In some cases the ploy works, but in others the group solidarity is strong. In the end, the group will find other ways to punish the guilty individual that are not always obvious.

In our society, government has a similar tendency to punish the masses for the sins of the few. It has led to numerous infringements on privacy, like red light cameras, the TSA ordeal we all undergo when trying to get on a plane, gun control, and countless other well-meaning laws and policies that are meant to save the many from the excesses of the few.

Here is another example of the government punishing everyone for the sins of a few. Every publicly-owned company has been forced to spend large sums of money in order to comply with the Sarbanes Oxley Act. This extra cost is a direct result of some high profile unethical corporate abuses by a few corporations over a decade ago. All publicly-owned companies suffer for the prior sins of a few defective organizations and their leaders. This suffering is a lot more than meets the eye, because organizations outside the USA are not saddled with a Sarbanes Oxley Act, and have a competitive cost advantage.

You can see the same pattern in organizations. The boss notices that an individual is leaving work early a couple times a week, so he issues a reminder of hours of work for the whole organization. This leads one cynical employee to blow a bugle at quitting time to let people know when it is time to go home.

It is natural to want to fix the problem when trust has been broken, but we need to ask what price we pay when so many aspects of daily life are regimented and people are forced to pay for the mistakes of others. Does it make people want to be less accountable for their own actions? Does it demotivate them by stifling creative instincts? Does it discourage them from taking risks? Is it fair?

I think of what the world would be like if we did not have a tendency to punish the many for the sins of a few. What would happen if we encouraged personal responsibility and building trust and transparency by reinforcing candor. It would be a different place for sure. When you ask your children who broke the lamp in the other room, one of them would say, “I did, Mommy, and I am sorry.” It would be a kinder, gentler world with far fewer dumb rules we have to follow because a few unscrupulous people cannot be trusted to do the right things.