Thank you for a very interesting question!
The "shame on you" hand gesture is called The Forefinger Rub, and it
implies a superior position from sender to receiver (the guilty
It's a sign of friction, which was derived from pointing. The origin is unknown.
Behaviors that are appropriate for use change with culture, age, and
sex. For example, the gesture for 'shame on you' (rubbing the index
fingers together, perpendicularly and down) implies a superior
position for the sender versus the receiver of the message.
The 'Shame on You' Emblem - Shame on you is appropriate for an adult
to give to a child, but you would not see an adult seriously give this
sign to another adult without offense.
According to David B. Givens , Ph.D., Director of the Center for
Nonverbal Studies... the gesture is restricted to North America, and
the origin is unknown. However, it's roots can be found in the
non-verbal gesture - pointing. And rubbing the two forefingers is
thought to symbolize friction.
Pointing puts an idea into another's mind
"Gesture. 1. Extending an index finger (or less frequently, other body
parts such as the lips) to indicate the presence or location of
objects, features, or forces. 2. Stiffening a forefinger to direct
attention to people, places, or things. 3. A stabbing motion of the
index finger, as given in anger.
Usage: We point with the second digit to turn another person's
attention to something we, ourselves, see, hear, or smell. Because it
refers to the outside world, the referential point is a high-level,
language-like gesture. In babies, the referential point first appears
at ca. 12 months of age, in tandem with the first use of words. (N.B.:
Prior to the appearance of speech, pointing is a reassuring indicator
of an infant's probable language ability.)"
"... only humans point them out with fingers. At close quarters,
pointing at another human being is almost universally considered an
aggressive, hostile, or unfriendly act. Because it focuses so much
attention upon the recipient, close-quarters pointing is frowned upon
throughout the world."
Evolution. A relatively recent gesture, pointing may trace back ca.
2.4 m.y.a. to neural circuits evident in the brain of our oldest-known
human ancestor, Homo habilis (See Human Brain)
Usage I: The human brain is both verbal (see SPEECH and WORD) and
nonverbal. Sometime between ca. 4 million and 200,000 years ago
(anthropologists are not sure when) human beings began to speak. And
yet, despite the immense power of words, nonverbal signals are still
used a. to convey emotions, feelings, and moods; and b. to express the
highs and lows of social status. Moreover, vocalizing itself--perhaps
because speech and manual signing co-evolved--is accompanied in every
culture by a panoply of palm-up, palm-down, pointing..."
"Word origin. Point originates from the ancient Indo-European root,
peuk- ("to prick"); derivatives include pugilism, punctuate, and
"Dr. Givens, Prof. Becker came up with a question about a
finger-on-finger gesture (both index fingers extended with the others
clenched, and one rubbing on the other, in a sort of whittling motion)
that is universally (at least in the U.S.) understood to be a "shame
on you" gesture used by or with children. The question is: Where did
the gesture come from? Does it symbolize something? Related questions
are: How universal is it outside the U.S.? Is it primarily a part of
children's culture? I enjoyed looking at the Nonverbal Dictionary, but
could not find such a gesture. We would appreciate any answers to our
questions. We have gotten a number of the Physics faculty here
wondering about the gesture (and perhaps wondering how two astronomers
came up with such questions)." --Glen W. Erickson, Physics Professor
Emeritus, University of California, Davis
Yes, according to Desmond Morris (1994:94-5), the gesture (forefingers
rub) means "shame," and is restricted to North America. The rubbing of
the two forefingers is thought to symbolize friction. There's a
related gesture (forefingers scrape) from Wales, Germany, and Austria,
in which one finger "saws" across the pointed other one. The latter is
considered an insult, again with the friction message coming though.
The origin of both of these gestures is unknown. The closest sign in
The Nonverbal Dictionary is the entry for "Point." In the forefinger
rub, the scraped digit may be pointed at the guilty party."
In parts of Mexico rubbing one index finger across the other is considered obscene.
A World of Gestures
Members of a culture typically know ONLY the gestures from their own
society. For example, Americans know gestures for messages such as
"OK", "Shame on You", and "Crazy", but are tend to be ignorant about
gestures from all other societies
Pointing one forefinger towards a person while sweeping the other
forefinger against the first implies, "Shame on you."
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION Chinese Emotion and Gesture
insulting (see photo)
When people show gestures like this one, that means that they look
down upon somebody. And when you use one of your fingers to scrape
your face looking at somebody, in fact, the corresponding verbal
expression may be said to be "Shame on you!"
You might be interested in a 6 page article from the American
Scientist on The Gestural Origins of Language by Michael C. Corballis:
gesture shame on you
origin + history gesture shame on you
nonverbal language shame on you
nonverbal language forefinger shame on you
finger on finger gesture
origin forefinger on finger gesture
history forefinger on finger gesture
origin forefinger rub
origin nonverbal gestures