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Body language: Hands touching the head

Scratching the hair

When we scratch our hair using one or more fingers anywhere on top, back or side of the head, it signals the emotional state of confusion. Watch any student trying to solve a difficult problem and you are likely to observe this gesture. There isn't a better place to observe this gesture than an exam hall, where students often have no idea what the question paper is trying to say!

As a teacher, when you are trying to explain a concept to your student and they scratch their head, you should try explaining the concept in a different way.

Sometimes, instead of using the fingers, a student may use an object such as a pen, pencil or ruler to scratch his head. The message conveyed is the same in all the cases- confusion.

student scratching her head

Scratching the forehead

Scratching or slapping the forehead usually indicates forgetfulness. We often scratch or slap our foreheads when we are trying hard to remember something. However, this gesture is also done when someone is undergoing any kind of mental discomfort that results from engaging in any kind of difficult mental activity like. . . .thinking!

Let's face it, thinking is hard for most of us. It was Bertrand Russel who said, "Most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so." So any activity that requires mental effort can force a person to scratch their forehead and not just trying to recall something from the past.

For instance, if you ask someone a difficult question, they might either scratch their hair (confusion) or forehead. If they know the answer and are trying to recall it, they might scratch their forehead. Also, if they have to think hard (mental discomfort) to figure out the solution, they may also scratch their forehead.

Note that thinking hard over a problem does not necessarily imply a state of confusion. Also, keep in mind the context of the situation. Sometimes we scratch our head only because we are feeling itchy.

Mental discomfort can also result when people irritate or annoy you. When you've had enough, you scratch your forehead or worse, physically attack the source of your annoyance. I'm sure you've observed, at least in the movies, that during a conversation when someone is totally pissed off, they will scratch their forehead a little before punching or slapping the person who annoyed them.



Clasping hands behind the head

This gesture is almost always done in a seated position and has two variations; one with elbows spread out and the other with elbows pointing forward at almost 90 degrees to the body’s plane.

When a person clasps his hand behind his head with elbows spread out, he’s feeling confident, dominant and superior. This gesture communicates the message, “I’m confident. I know it all. I have all the answers. I’m in charge here. I’m the boss.”

When someone finishes a difficult task, say on a computer, then they might assume this gesture while seated and lean slightly backward to signal their satisfaction at a job well done. A superior might assume this gesture when a subordinate is asking for advice.

confident man

When you compliment someone for their great work, they might instantly assume this body language position and you can be sure that your compliment made them feel good about themselves. Though this gesture signals confidence, it is not recommended for job interviews because it will obviously threaten the superior position of the interviewer. Threatening the interviewer is the last thing any job aspirant would like to do.


When we clasp our hands behind our head with elbows pointing forward, it signals disbelief and great surprise. A surprise so great that we are inclined to disbelief and denial. It communicates the message, “This is impossible. It can’t be true. I can't believe it happened?”

It is often accompanied by lowering or moving away of the upper body and closure of the eyes because we are unconsciously blocking the shock or surprise that is too big for us to handle. Sometimes the hands are clasped on top of the head instead at the back of the head.

Let's look at this gesture from an evolutionary point of view. Imagine you are a hunter fixing your gaze on the prey as you walk slowly in tall grass. You are waiting for the right time to attack, the right to throw your spear. 

Suddenly, a leopard from a nearby tree jumps on you! Imagine it and try to visualize what your instant reaction would be. Yes, you will lean away from the leopard and clasp your hands behind your head. This gesture protects the delicate back of your head and the elbows prevent any damage that may occur to the face from the front or side of the face. Damage such as a leopard sinking its claws in your face.

Today we humans are less likely to encounter such a situation but in our ancestral times it was so common that this response is ingrained in our psyche and we use it whenever we face a situation that emotionally 'shocks' us even if it presents no real physical danger. 

In modern times this gesture is done whenever a person hears shocking news like the death of a loved one. When a person who is injured in an accident is rushed into a hospital emergency room, you might see his relative or friend doing this gesture in the waiting area. When a soccer player misses a goal, he does this gesture to express his shock and disbelief, “This is impossible. How could I miss? I was so close.”

soccer players reacting
Soccer players reacting to missed goals   
What's fascinating is that you might even see fans do this gesture if their supported team loses an important opportunity or suffers a major blow. It doesn't matter if they're in the stadium or watching the match on TV in their living rooms. 

When you are watching thriller movies, TV shows or documentaries, and you come across a scene that shocks you, you might find yourself doing this gesture.



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