Is That a (Finger) Gun in Your Hand?

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

5-Minute Read

Practical Applications for Nonverbal Intelligence and the Power and Pitfalls of Pointing.

The finger. This digit wields a lot of power. Consider this. Scripture tells us that the finger of God inscribed the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) on two stone tablets atop Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:18). Of course, you would expect God’s finger to wield much power and you’d likely not want it pointed at you. In fact, studies show that most people dislike a finger pointed at them.

In more human terms, the finger was used for economic purposes. The ancient Hebrews counted a finger to be around one-fourth of one’s palm. Egyptians also used similar metrics. In Old Testament sacrifices (Exodus 29:12) the sprinkling of blood was done sometimes with the wag of a finger.

And then sometimes there are two fingers involved. Probably the most famous is the Three Stooges poke in the eyes (shown below with a pro tip on how to block it).

The fingers can be used to convey meaning quickly. The great observer of human behavior, Desmond Morris, compares the shortening of words for quicker absorption to abbreviated body language gestures —like when we use the contraction “can’t” instead of “cannot”.  These gestures are not unlike shorthand. So, in some parts of the world, a person may jab a pair of fingers into the air as a way to mime an angry charging bull[1]. I think you get the point.

But what happens when the finger turns into a gun? That’s 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy shooting a celebratory finger gun as if to say, “I killed it!”

In the United States, we understand what it means when a person points a forefinger to their temple, in the form of a gun. In Japan, if you were to jab your finger into your stomach in a stabbing motion, it would convey the same meaning. Suicide.[2]

But what if the gun is pointed at you? You’re sitting across the table from this gentleman below and you suddenly see his fingers in the shape of a pistol pointing right at you. What does that mean?

In the right context, this gesture is a form of aggression. That is, if someone brings both index fingers together and points them toward you—this is meant to resemble the barrel of a pistol. [3]This could be a sign of aggression; it can also be interpreted as accusatory, or someone who is laser focused.

Another variation is the pistol steeple, shown below by Ivanka Trump, which involves the dual fingers placed in front of or sometimes slightly underneath the chin. In this case, it means you should pay attention to what Ivanka has to say. She is in charge, or she would like us to think that she is. Her pose conveys a ready criticalness to shoot down concepts she does not like. Oftentimes, this signal can be meant as condescending.

But then there are other types of finger-gun gestures. Suppose you met this woman below and noticed that her fingers were steepled in front of her mouth. What does that mean? In this instance, this type of steepling is a defensive posture not unlike covering one’s mouth. She likely has seen or heard something that causes her psychological discomfort. She is likely worried about herself.

So, what do you do when you see a variation of the pistol steeple? If the finger is in front of the chin or slightly underneath it, it is a reliable signal that someone thinks they are in charge. If the fingers are blocking the lips, then someone is concerned about their wellbeing. If the former, tread carefully. If the latter, seek to bring psychological comfort to the person with refreshments, a brief walk, or just plain listening.

Contact us today to see how we can help you or your organization become proficient at finding out what people are really thinking when they communicate with you. 

Most Communication is Nonverbal. Are You Fluent?

[1] Excerpt From, Peoplewatching Desmond Morris:

[2] Roger E. Axtell Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World

[3] Wezowski, Kasia; Wezowski, Patryk. Without Saying a Word (p. 204). AMACOM. Kindle Edition.