The finger wag is received with a sinking heart by most recipients. Whether it’s delivered by an admonishing parent or by a critical referee when you’re playing a sport, you know that when you see that finger wagging, it’s a sure sign you’ve done something wrong. How did a finger wag come to mean this?
The Finger Wag is known as a Substitute Signal in Body Language. A substitute for what? Your finger is in fact acting as a substitute for your head.
The head shake is a world-wide sign of saying “no” by shaking the head from side to side. In the finger wag, the finger takes the role of the head, being shaken instead.
Why use a finger when you can use your head? Using the finger wag as a sign of disapproval or admonishment allows extra flexibility to give a more forceful and rapid shaking of the finger that would probably make you dizzy if attempted with the head! In other words, hands are capable of a wider spectrum of subtleties that the head cannot achieve.
The finger wag is distinct in meaning and appearance from other baton-like finger movements and pointing actions.
The finger wag is not the only Substitute Signal used in body language. In the North Native American culture, the finger is also dipped like a head nod to signify “yes”.
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The assistant head of our library uses the finger wag all the time when correcting adult employees. She couples it with a tone of voice that makes her sound like a 19th century school teacher, scolding naughty children. I hope her finger falls off.