Villains in cartoons do it. Salespeople do it. And when we’re feeling cold we do it. Why do we rub our hands together?
Rubbing hands together when Feeling Cold
Context is a very important thing to consider when interpreting body language. If it’s cold outside, and you’re talking to someone, and they suddenly rub their hands together, it’s likely they’re doing it to warm up their hands with a bit of friction, rather than it having any deeper implications on their psyche and inner thoughts.
Rubbing hands together when feeling anticipation
The hand rub is almost as if the person has excess energy, and in order to get it out of their system, they rub their hands together quickly.
Sometimes the hand rub also denotes nervous expectation, where the result of an event is unknown, such as before a blind date, interview or big public presentation.
More often however, rubbing hands together denotes positive expectation and eagerness.
The salesperson who rubs his hands together quickly is communicating anything from:
“I look forward to seeing your positive reaction when you see this great product!”
“I look forward to getting a commission from this item I’m going to sell you!”
For this latter reason, the hand-rubbing gesture has become synonymous with greed in public opinion and is often deliberately used in jest in this context.
Body language experts suggest that you can differentiate between selfish positive expectations and general positive expectations by the speed of the hand rub. A slow rubbing of the hands together communicates sneakiness, and is associated with selfish gain, whereas a fast rubbing of the hands communicates more general enthusiasm.
Villains in films usually rub their hands in expectation of getting their hands on that million dollars they’ve stolen, or in expectation of taking over the world. Notice that their hand rub is almost always the slow, devious one of self-gain. For this reason, the slow hand-rub has also become associated with “positive expectations at the expense of something bad happening to others”, although this isn’t necessarily always the case. Nevertheless, the famous baddie-hand-rub is another gesture that’s commonly used jokingly.
Other examples of the hand rub showing positive expectations include:
- when a gambler rubs dice between his hands before a throw in positive anticipation of throwing a good roll,
- someone rubbing their hands together before a delicious meal or fun activity, like looking forward to a concert or movie they’ve been anticipating, or even looking forward to seeing a friend.
- If you see your waiter rubbing his hands together when you ask for the bill, it may be his body saying that he is anticipating a tip.
Rubbing hands together as if washing off guilt
Extending the idea that hand rubbing is a way of releasing nervous energy, it could also denote releasing guilt. The most famous example of Lady Macbeth “cleaning” her hands of that darn spot.
This may look differently from the positive hand rub because it’s more commonly seen in the rubbing of one palm against the back of the other hand, rather than palm-to-palm rubbing. It is more usual for guilt to be associated with the hand-wringing gesture than the hand rubbing gesture.
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