Cultural variation in phalangeal deployment in the service conveying antipathy

I have a lot of thoughts about politics these days, but so does everybody else, right? So I will not write about politics.

Instead, I want to write about “the finger.” I’ve been giving the finger as long as I can remember. I probably learned it from my brother or sister, though, its use was heavily reinforced in social settings — at least those not policed by grown-ups.

I don’t give the finger very much these days, but I still enjoy seeing a good display. I noticed, recently, though, that there seems to be a lot of variation in how people give the finger, and I’ve become curious about it.

The gesture I learned, which I’ll call the “basic” finger requires that the middle finger be extended fully, and all the others be curled down as much as possible. This includes the thumb. It looks like these:




However, for a long time, I’ve been aware of an alternative interpretation of this gesture, which I will call the “John Hughes.” In this variation, the other fingers are not held down, but merely curled at the knuckles — sometimes only very slightly. The thumb may even be extended. In film, the person giving this gesture often wears fingerless gloves.

Here are some examples:




I actually find performing this variation rather difficult, as I cannot seem to get my middle finger to extend fully while the others are only bent. However, for my wife and many others, this is the default form — she does not associate it with the Chicago suburbs at all.

So, I ask you, my loyal readers, what’s going on? What drives this variation?

Some theories:

  • geography (soda / pop / coke)
  • class-based
  • disdain vs. anger


Does one skew more Republican and the other more Dem?

Are there more types out there? I realize that if you widen the scope internationally, there are many more variations, including the “V” and the thumb, but I’m mostly curious about the intra-US variation.

2 thoughts on “Cultural variation in phalangeal deployment in the service conveying antipathy”

  1. Observations in late 1980s New Mexico (unpublished data) support the regional-variation hypothesis: the common practice was to bend the adjacent fingers to about half-mast, while the basic “other fingers curled down as much as possible” was practiced by two punk-rockers who had moved to the area from the Midwest, one of them from the Chicago suburbs. I kid you not. Further study is needed to establish whether this pattern would hold across a larger sample of rebellious teens, and to examine whether birdie flipping has varied more widely across other US regions and decades.

    A side-note: this above-mentioned cohort also included one borderline punk/new-wave import from the UK, who taught us all a much cooler hand signal involving showing the back of the hand with the first two fingers raised in a “V” shape, tumb folded closed between them.

    1. Investigator is in the process of applying for grants that will allow furtherance of this line of inquiry. Funds will be used to tour a statistically relevant sampling of locations in North America, “pissing off” people and recording the gestures so elicited. Verbal responses will also be recorded as potential raw data for research involving other forms of communication.

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