We’ve all seen someone rubbing their palms together. The problem, though, is that this gesture seems to send a mixed message.
It can be performed by a villainous character or a benevolent one. So, what are we to make of this action?
To figure out the probable meaning of this gesture, we’ll look at the two main variations and what’s suggested by the differences between them.
The short answer is this: rubbing the hands together suggests anticipation of something enjoyable.
Let’s start by getting two things out of the way that we aren’t going to look at here.
- The hand rubbing gesture is commonly done when someone is cold, simply for the friction. This meaning is obvious.
- There may be cultural or regional meanings for this action. Performing it in that context deliberately communicates a specific meaning known to those in the area.
We’re interested in the unconscious meaning behind this gesture, and the general effect it creates. We’ll start by looking at the two main variants, the fast and the slow hand rub.
The fast hand rub indicates a positive expectation for something socially acceptable. It usually signifies high excitement more so than a slight hopefulness. Here are some examples that could be accompanied by a fast hand rubbing:
- Your coworker says they’ve booked a vacation they’ve been planning for a long time.
- Your friend says they’re going to their favorite restaurant to have their favorite meal.
- Your child finds out you’re all going to the park.
There’s a clear positive expectation in all these situations. It’s important to note that they’re all perfectly acceptable reasons to be excited. We wouldn’t question the morals of someone who’s anticipating any of these things.
The slow hand rub indicates a positive expectation for something underhanded or purely selfish. The person is anticipating the fulfillment of a strong desire, one that probably isn’t going to benefit anyone else. Here are some examples that could be accompanied by a slow hand rubbing:
- A cartoon villain is planning the ruin of the hero.
- Someone who’s been slighted at work anticipates getting revenge by planning something embarrassing for their coworker.
- A salesperson spots a clueless buyer.
- A child thinks about how they could steal a toy they’ve been wanting.
There’s also a clear positive expectation in all these situations, but at the cost of someone else. The motives that go with the slow hand rub are probably ones we’d want to keep to ourselves.
Clearly, this depends on whether you’re doing it, or someone else is directing it at you. If you’re doing the fast variation, something good for you is probably on the way. Of course, this also applies to the slow variation, assuming there won’t be any adverse consequences for satisfying your longing.
If someone else does the fast version in your presence, there’s probably no cause for concern. Their excitement shouldn’t take anything away from you.
An exception is if you feel an obligation to the person and get roped into participating in something you don’t like.
If someone does the slow version in your presence, you’d better hope they’re thinking about someone else.
An exception would be the unlikely event that your desires happen to coincide with whatever unsavory design has formed in this person’s head.
If there’s going to be overlap between the two variations, most likely it will come from the fast version. If a salesperson does a fast hand rub while helping you, that likely indicates a solution that will benefit you both.
This action doesn’t strongly suggest either dominance or submission; it’s probably in the middle range of the two, slightly leaning toward dominance. The motion draws a bit of attention to a person, and suggests they’re planning to do something.
Other than the speed of the hands, these two variations can look identical. This is a very important difference.
Just as we tend to talk faster when excited, we also tend to move faster. This is evident in the fast version of the hand rubbing gesture. Speed and excitement naturally go together.
On the other hand, when describing a forbidden yearning we tend to stretch the tension with a reduction in intensity—lower volume, slower speaking rate, and slower movements. This effect is evident in the slow version of the hand rubbing gesture.
To highlight the importance of this difference, imagine a situation. Your neighbor, a little old lady, invites you in to talk. As she serves you a cup of tea, she says she can’t wait for you to try it. Play this scene out with a fast and a slow hand rub added on. The first one seems pleasant, and the second seems concerning.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably modified the facial expression and tone of voice without having to be told. The speed of the hand movement creates very different impressions to an onlooker.
That depends a lot on the context. Rubbing the hands together is really easy to do on purpose. Fortunately, the meaning can be sincere even if it’s consciously done. A person could be genuinely excited and intentionally use the fast version to reinforce that.
It could also be used ironically to feign excitement about something boring. In this case, the meaning would be fairly clear, so there’s no worry about being misled.
The slow version could be faked with a humorous intent in the same way. That aside, it’s less likely to be done on purpose than the fast version. The slow hand rub is a fairly reliable indicator of a selfish or underhanded motive. Beware if someone you’re dealing with does it unconsciously.