9.18.2012

The Etymology of Human Male Non-Verbal Communications (or, Why Men Fist-Bump)



(Note: This article is a classic from the archives -- in fact I forgot I even wrote it, until the New York Times called me this weekend to interview me about my "expertise in male-male non-verbal communication", or simply, fist-bumping. Apparently they're doing a piece on it in the next few weeks, which highlights something I always tell people: just because you don't get attention *now* for something you do doesn't mean it doesn't matter. You never know when, 4 years later, the world's most read newspaper will call you to interview you about it. I figured since it's about to be relevant again, I'd dig it up and dust it off. I hope you enjoy it.)


From insects to reptiles to mammals, all living things share between one another a set of instinctive communication that, through evolution or out-of-the-box, we all understand.

But there are a special subset of non-verbal tools that are used predominantly, if not exclusively, between human males. Sure, women might engage in sharing nods, handshakes, fist bumps, and other forms of communication, but they do so as mimics; not fully understanding the subtleties and subtexts of these communicative forms.

I’ve taken it upon myself to create this guide to these male-specific gestures and actions, so as to extend an olive branch of understanding across gender divides (and also, to make up for laughing at my wife when she asked me about fist-bumps earlier this morning... Hopefully this will get me out of the doghouse and, possibly, a new XBox 360 game).

Non-physical communication:


The Nod

Nods are fairly simple in their execution. Eye contact between two men is made, and a choice between two types of nod is instantly made:
Up-nod
Usually friendly, and used when one has met or seen the intended recipient before on good terms. Can and usually does lead to further forms of communication, such as the fist bump.

Down-nod
Politeness in a gesture, quite simply. Used when the two parties are unfamiliar with one another and are on positive grounds, or when the two have met previously and aren’t exactly comfortable with talking to one another. Almost always indicates “I am no threat to you, and I hope you aren’t one to me.” Not to be confused with a head-duck to avoid eye contact.

Note: The upnod and downnod are sometimes transcoded and interchanged by a special subset of users, the “White Suburban Gangster.” Men typically pay no attention to this subset of their gender, as they are a backwards group and tend to get a lot of things confused.


The "Power Fist”
Seen pretty regularly in gym or fitness settings, this indicates that one is to do whatever it is they are about to do with great force or power. It’s usually used before the event, but is sometimes given after the event as a sign of affirmation and pride from a coach or a father. Sometimes abused by douchebags in photos while wearing fake tans and too much hair gel, and always abused by politicians.

Good Power Fist:
Bad Power Fist:



Peace Sign
Doesn’t actually mean “peace” between men... Usually means “I’m too cool to use all five fingers when I wave to you.”


Sideways Peace Sign

This says “I’m a douche.” There are NO exceptions.


“Metal Hands” / Hook Horns (not at a concert)
In a concert or musical context, this means "OMG RAWK", and is used freely between both genders. In a non-music context, this is usually celebratory, or to show extreme excitement for an upcoming event. Similar to the "Power Fist”, but not reserved for jocks and athletes. One might give “Metal Hands” to another for an exceptional joke, for performing a gnarly stunt, or for making a saving throw when the Wood Elf Ranger ambushes a party in the Woods of Despair.


Bow
Normally reserved for Asian cultures, or extreme forms of respect in Western cultures (subjects bowing to their King, etc). When done by an American male to another American male, it’s usually going to be a sarcastic gesture intended to embarrass the other for being too commanding.


This never happens in America. Ever.


Salute
Salutes can mean two things, based on context:
Respectful: playful form of rank-establishment. When done to a person in position of authority who is also friendly with the saluter, it means they heard the instruction loud and clear and will do what was asked, but the saluter also wishes to establish a playful note so that he doesn’t seem “obedient.” It means “I’ll do this because I respect you, not because I was ordered to.”

Disrespectful: See “Bow.” Usually leads to argument, and in extreme cases, a Knuckle Bump to the face.

KneelOnly performed before Zod.


Who the hell WOULDN'T kneel before this man? Not you, right?




Physical


High Five
Extremely casual and versatile. Ranges from brand new acquaintanceships all the way to lifelong friendships. Can be a greeting, a form of celebration, or just a simple “Right on.” This particular form of communication is heavily context-sensitive, and as such, stands as the one form of communication that can be used in just about all situations.

Low Five
Usually followed after high-five, especially when done with 5-year-old nephews. Can sometimes be followed by clasping the recipient nose, pulling away, and saying “I’ve got your nose.” If you see two adults doing this, look around for your time machine and get the hell out of the 1970’s.


Fist Bump (AKA Knuckle Bump)The reason for this article. The male fist bump is a varied and nuanced ritual, but really only boils down to a simple concept - an informal greeting between casual friends.

Classic Fist bump (vertical)
Used by those who truly understand the fist bump. Simple contact between two clinched fists. Used liberally between men who aren't trying to put on airs or seem hip. In most casual circles, this is the predominant male greeting. In "hip" circles, this is seen as "played out" because those circles are fucking douchebags who care far more about wearing oversized $300.00 sunglasses intended for women.

"Dap" double-tap overhand fist bump
Sometimes done by your dad when he wants to be cool. One male taps the other male on the top of a closed fist, the other male repeats, and the the two tap knuckles straight on. This might have been casual and cool in the mid to late 1960's in the inner-city, radiating outward into the Caucasian suburbs by the 1970's. These days, it's only used by the type of men who want to keep only a touch of gray (note pathetic cross-gender peace sign usage in link).

“Exploding” Fist Bump
A Fist Bump (either vertical or horizontal) followed by a mock “explosion” by flinging all five fingers outward and making a “Bwooosh!” sound with pursed lips. See “Sideways Peace Sign” (except if done after a particularly spectacular touchdown by an NFL player... And that’s only on a case-by-case basis).

Forearm / Elbow Bump
This is a slightly advanced form of Fist Bump, reserved for acquaintances who see each other often, or newly created friendships. The Forearm Bump is done almost always because one of the parties has their hands full, has just soiled their hands, or has just washed their hands but does not want to be rude. There are exception cases to the forearm bump, such as a late-notice of a passing acquaintence where it is just slightly too late to make hand contact, but can be saved with a quick bump of elbows or forearms.


Hand Clasp
The most advanced form of casual physical communication due to the many variations and contexts. This is one step above Fist Bump and one step below Handshake in terms of formality, and the highest form of friendly greeting between men.


Overhand hand claspSometimes called the "soul brother handshake" by dipshits. This form of handshake looks like the form of grip that is used in traditional arm wrestling.



Overhand hand clasp to finger clasp (Bonus - add finger point)
The grip from the Overhand Hand Clasp is loosened, and the hands slide backwards into a finger-lock. The grip is re-tightened. This is usually an added feature to the Overhand Hand Clasp to indicate level of urban sophistication, and is usually laughed at when white people do it (unless said white person has demonstrated a keen understanding and appreciation for all things hip-hop, meaning they can name at least three Eric B. and Rakim tracks, understand what "doing an Ep in my Jeep" means WITHOUT GOOGLING, and have completely disavowed anything ever even remotely attached to 50 Cent).

Overhand hand clasp to shoulder bump
A human equivalent of two rams butting heads with one another. This greeting is fueled by testosterone and Red Bull. Usually used by people who obsessively call each other "bro."

Overhand hand clasp to one-arm hug (AKA “Man Hug”)
Brothers, or friends as close as brothers, will do this. It's a safe display of positive emotions one man might have for another. If the two are not exceptionally close, this particular greeting is acceptable ONLY if there has been a notable span of time between the last time they've seen one another and now.

Overhand hand clasp to heel-kick-lock to spin dismount
Reserved only for Kid n’ Play.


Classic Handshake
Ah, the defacto male greeting. Yes, females use it too, but it’s usually JUST a greeting if done by or to a female. The male handshake, however, is rife with subtlety and subtext, depending on point of contact, grip, pressure, length of duration, and the stature and status of the two parties involved.

This could really be an entire article unto itself, and probably one day will be. But for now, I’ll touch on some of the more prominent components of a male-male handshake and their associated meanings:

Hand Placement: Deep-set hand placement, where the webbing between the thumb and forefinger is set as close as possible to the same on the other male's hand, indicates a general respect for people. It shows that one's father showed them how to give a proper handshake. The further back the hand is set when the grip is closed, the less respect you apparently have for the person you are shaking hands with (and for most people in general).

Pressure: Pressure equals confidence. The more pressure applied to a grip, the more confience the male is presuming to communicate they possess. Not enough pressure, and you are seen as weak. Too much pressure, and you are seen as overbearing and boorish, overcompensating for something. A firm handshake, where pressure is applied by both parties so as to create an equilibrium, indicates confidence on both sides.

The added hand: a second hand clasped over the extended hand of a man one is shaking hands with indicates a formal form of familiarity and warmth. When a man shakes hands with someone and places their left hand over the back of the other man's hand, he is saying "We are friends. Feel comfortable." Whether or not he means it depends entirely on how much he desires of the person he is shaking hands with.

The inner-palm middle-finger tickle: Leads to man on man UNF-ing.

I hope this guide has helped shed some light on the world of male-to-male non-verbal communication. At the very least, I hope the Kid-n-Play animation was entertaining, because it took forever to find a high enough quality video on YouTube to grab screenshots from.