The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


The simple act of placing the fingertips of either hand together in front of you to form a steeple is a very effective gesture that is rarely offensive and will establish you as someone [who is] both evaluative and in control. --Susan Bixler (The Professional Image, p. 238)

Gesture. A position in which the tactile pads of the fingertips of one hand gently touch their counterparts on the other.
Usage: The steeple cue, perhaps first identified by Ray L. Birdwhistell (Blum 1988) reflects precise thought patterns. It may be used while listening, speaking, or thinking, to entertain a provocative or novel idea, or to contemplate a creative solution to problems at hand.

Business. Steeple gestures may be used above a conference table to show that one is listening thoughtfully to a colleague's ideas and comments.

Media1. In a classic black-and-white photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, physicist Robert Oppenheimer steepled his fingers while conversing with Albert Einstein on December 29, 1947. 2. In a Today Show interview with Katie Couric on June 24, 2003, Bernard Kerak, U.S. administrator for Iraq, steepled as he calmly explained that the postwar situation in Iraq was largely in control. When Katie asked about the exploding crime rate there, Kerak broke the steeple and vigorously scratched the palm of his hand. After explaining his side of the issue, he resumed steepling until the interview concluded. (On June 25, 2003, USA Today's lead article was about the escalating crime rate in Iraq.)
Observation1. The condominium president steepled his fingers at chest level at his body's midline and replied, "I know what I'm going to do about the board meeting." 2.The CEO steepled and leaned back in his boardroom chair as he asked senior staff, "What shall we do about this problem?" 3. Steeple gestures may be observed at training lectures, news briefings, and seminars on financial planning, e.g., where precise digital opposition reflects careful reasoning, calculation, scheming, and thought.

Parallel palms. A common variant of the steeple cue is the widespread parallel-palms gesture. In parallel palms, the open hands are held facing--i.e., parallel to--one another as they are raised and lowered together (i.e., in tandem) in beating or chopping motions to strengthen a verbal point. As demonstrative speaking gestures, parallel palms are often seen in the courtroom as lawyers seek to manifest or prove an oral argument. Parallel palms are used by politicians, as well, to present arguments which they believe to be cogent, sound, and valid. Thus, parallel palms is an "exploded" version of the steeple cue, in which a speaker's opened hands are extended and aggressively shaken at listeners to show a. precise thought and b. a strong emotional conviction about the thought's validity. (N.B.: Note how, because the hands are held midway between the palm-down and palm-up positions, parallel-palms cues suggest the physical act of grasping, holding, or seizing a concept.)
World politics. Winston Churchill and Mikhail Gorbachev used the steeple gesture to signal self-confidence as they spoke and listened. Regarding Gorbachev, "He steeples in Moscow. He steeples in Washington. He steeples when he listens. He steeples when he talks. He steeples high. He steeples low. He even steeples when he smiles" (Blum 1988:3-14).

RESEARCH NOTES1. Finger-thumb steeple: "One hand movement which we filmed in a wide variety of places, is habitually used in speech. This involves placing the tips of the thumb and forefinger together to emphasize a line of argument. Usually, the hand moves agitatedly to and fro, and the speaker often concludes the gesture by abruptly baring his open palm at the other party" (Hass 1970:148). 2. "When a person in a private session with me displays this behavior and I ask what they are feeling, I can get a range of responses. If, however, I phrase my question in a leading way such as, 'I sense you're feeling pretty confident about what you've just said . . .,' I will invariably get an affirmation. If the person does not verbally confirm confident feelings, the steepling generally stops when I ask the question this way" (Blum 1988:3-13). 3.Fingers steeple, a widespread gesture, means "I am thinking" (Morris 1994:65).

E-Commentary: "One of the areas that has always fascinated me is watching the steepling gestures which I have seen, as you mentioned, during precise thinking. But I have also seen it as a territory marker (wide elbows); where two or more men with big egos were doing it, I have literally seen the senior, more dominant person lift his steepled hands above his head and crown himself as he declared the final and decisive order. For a minute, I thought Napoleon had crowned himself all over again. Everyone in the room I later interviewed had missed it, but I saw it coming and thought it amazing." --Joe Navarro, FBI Special Agent (1/13/00 2:57:34 PM Pacific Standard Time)

Neuro-notes I. Steepling arose from brain modules of the precision grip, a position of the hands perhaps first used ca. 2.6 m.y.a., when our ancestors opposed their digits to make stone tools. Controlled in part by highly evolved areas of our neocortex's parietal lobe (see HUMAN BRAIN), precision gestures bear a close relationship to tool-making itself--i.e., to the sequentially ordered hand movements once employed to chip flakes from a core of stone. Today, steepling reflects higher-order thought processes, as dexterous brain modules for tool-making shift into gear for problem-solving, planning, and design.

Neuro-notes II. The neocortex's supplementary motor area (SMA) helps organize the voluntary finger movements of the steeple cue. Generally, the SMA controls the sequential movements of complex, bilateral hand gestures (see, e.g., Ghez 1991B). Studies suggest that SMA's involvement is ". . . more reliant upon timing than on spatial cues, indicating its role in the temporal organisation of sequential movements, rather than the programming of spatial movement parameters (Cunnington et al. 1996). The SMA on both sides of the brain activates even when a hand movement on only one side is made (Tanji and Kurata 1982; which explains the odd movements and postures our left hand may assume as we paint a wall with our right).


Detail of photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (copyright 1947 by Alfred Eisenstaedt)