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Any situation where characters communicate with gestures and motions, usually of the hands, as opposed to using voices. This is often done specifically to avoid speaking, either because somebody present is unable to hear or comprehend a given language, or because the characters are sneaking and cannot make noise. American Sign Language (and those Sign Languages that are not American) is perhaps the perfect example, allowing deaf individuals to communicate with one another through the use of sight rather than hearing.

Hand Signals are prevalent in reality as well as fiction. Whenever you indicate something by pointing at it, you're using a Hand Signal. Armed forces use them all the time, for convenience or stealth. Here, try it yourself: when someone approaches you, hold your hand out to them, palm-out, for "Stop." You didn't actually say "Stop," but the other person saw your gesture and probably knew its meaning intuitively. The "Cut-Off" signal, made by either pointing two fingers at your throat and waving back and forth or by drawing an extended index finger across your jugular vein, is also an example of a gesture with a universally recognized (not to say slightly disturbing) meaning.

This trope is frequently played for laughs, usually through Lampshade Hanging. Instances include a character misunderstanding a signal, thinking a character is gesturing meaninglessly when they are attempting to frantically make themselves understood, and the gratuitous use of hand signals when they aren't required.

This trope is not Body Language, and does not include habitual gestures like poses and tics. Also has nothing to do with Talking with Signs, which is about writing on wooden signs. A sufficiently developed set of Hand Signals may evolve into Talking Through Technique or an actual Signed Language.

Examples of Hand Signals include:


Anime and Manga

  • In the first seasons Baseball Episode, Haruhi Suzumiya uses overly complicated hand signals to give instructions to Kyon and Mikuru. Problem is, she didnt bother to tell her teammates what the signs meant, so Kyon snarks about her trying to cast a spell to reduce the opposing pitchers stats.
  • The five main ninja villages in Naruto each have their own version of military Hand Signals, though some overlap is obvious and visible.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
    • 1st Gig episode "In the Forest of Pupae – PORTRAITZ". The Major and Batou use this when they infiltrate a youth reform facility for fear of having their comms intercepted/destroyed/hacked after losing contact with Togusa.
    • 2nd GIG episode #4 "Natural Enemy". During a military live fire exercise, one of the soldiers uses hand signals to control the movement of troops infiltrating a building.
      • This is foreshadowing to the show finale where a group of antagonistic elite soldiers communicate with hand signals, and only use thermoptic camouflage while moving from cover to cover, since all electronic communications in the region are being jammed, and they know that slightest miscommunication could spell disaster while dealing with Section 9.
  • In Eyeshield 21, Mamori and Hiruma devise a system of hand signals to use during games. Hiruma, smart-ass that he is, demonstrates by spelling out the message "The team manager secretly ate all the cream puffs."
  • In Master of Martial Hearts, Natsume Honma's mother Kumi is mute due to an incident that damaged her vocal cords, so she uses actual sign language to communicate. Natsume and her brother Haruki 'translate' this to others.

Film

  • In The 13th Warrior, a group of Viking warriors search a house in absolute silence while another with a bow covers them. Finding nothing, one signals "all clear" with a two-handed wave. The signal is noteworthy because the scene's total silence was a major source of tension- the Vikings expected to find a very deadly enemy in the house. The signal diffuses the tension in an equally soundless manner.
  • In Team America: World Police, Garry is about to infiltrate a terrorist cell. He is asked if he remembers the signal he should give if he's in trouble, and responds by waving his arms over his head and pantomiming screaming in terror. This is apparently the correct answer.
  • Seth Rogen's character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin replies to the title character's description of his weekend by making a gun with one hand and firing it into the side of his head, then spreading his other hand quickly on the opposite side to indicate the resulting gore spatter. It was pretty graphic.
  • Predator. Dutch and the members of his hostage rescue team use Hand Signals to give information and instructions to each other.
  • Spoofed in Johnny English: The titular secret agent and his subordinate are sneaking through a parking lot after being shot at. He doesn't want to risk giving away his position, so he tries to use hand signals to tell Baugh to move up one floor and cover that area. But due to Johnny being quite incompetent, he makes several sequences of silly gestures before he gives up and just whispers "You. Upstairs." while pointing.
  • The Matrix. As the Agents and some police approach Neo's cubicle, Agent Smith gives a hand sign to the police to move down another path.
  • Lilo and Stitch: Nani coaches Lilo through her interview with Cobra Bubbles, which Lilo "misinterprets" to make it seem that Nani mistreats her.
  • Resident Evil. While infiltrating the underground base, Rain uses signals to control the advance of the rest of the team and is echoed by the team leader.
  • The Mask. When Dorian Tyrell's men are firing at Niko and his men in the Coco Bongo club, Tyrell orders them to stop by raising his hand in the air with fingers spread.
  • The Guns of Navarone.
    • Leutnant Muesel gives a "stop" signal to his troops when they're approaching the wedding party.
    • Inside a tavern a Greek Resistance member gives one to a bartender to turn out the light.
  • You Only Live Twice. Tiger Tanaka uses them twice with his ninja army: once he raises his arm to signal them to enter the crater and once he waves his arm to tell them to advance.
  • The Fugitive.
    • When Gerard receives word of Kimble escaping in an ambulance, he gives a thumbs up to his helicopter pilot as a signal to start the engine.
    • While Gerard is leading the other marshals through the drains, he makes a gesture indicating they should turn off and take one of the tunnels.
    • Gerard makes a "shut up" signal to the other marshals when he realizes that the person calling him is Kimble.
    • Cosmo makes a "stretch it out" signal to Gerard to indicate they need more time to trace Kimble's call.
    • Gerard makes a gesture to the other marshals during their raid on the hotel, indicating that they need to cover the exits.
  • Our Man Flint
    • Rodney gives a signal to the Galaxy operatives to hook up the trailer to the safe so they can drive away with it.
    • Gila gives a signal to the Italians to come out and set up their outdoor cafe on top of the Exotica Beauty company building after it sinks into the ground.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Captain Nemo uses them to direct his men while invading the Fantom's factory/fortress.
  • Starship Troopers. Lieutenant Rasczak uses them to the MI under his command while approaching the outpost on Planet P.
  • Aliens. During the preparation for the Drop Ship's departure Lieutenant Gorman gives a "thumbs up" gesture to the pilots and one to Bishop who's driving the APC.
  • Toy Story
    • The Army Men and their Sergeant used them with each other repeatedly during the recon operation to find out what toys Andy was getting at his birthday party.
    • Woody and the mutilated toys used them while preparing to rescue Buzz from Sid.
    • Mr Tortilla-Head uses baseball signals during the escape sequence in the third film.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark. While exploring the underground temple, Indy uses them to his guide Satipo when he sees that his back is covered with tarantulas. He signals to Satipo to "Come here" and "Turn around" so Indy can brush them off.
  • The Sting.
    • The Con Man recognition signal (brushing the nose with a finger).
    • When Snyder enters the Con Artist bar and someone knocks on the door, Dukie puts up his hand in a "stop" sign to Kid Twist.
  • Young Frankenstein has a hilarious scene where Dr. Frankenstein attempts to use charades to communicate with his assistants, since he's being strangled by the monster. One long set of hand signals later, and the two of them finally catch on. The Doctor is alive, if miffed.

  "SED-A-GIVE!?!"

  • Played for laughs in Galaxy Quest; Jason gives the "wave two fingers in front of the neck" signal to Gwen, telling her to turn off the communications line with Serris after he pretends to agree to Serris' demands. After she returns the signal, he immediately tells one of the others to fire everything they have before Serris realizes he's not actually capitulating, and tells Gwen to put him back on so he can continue the charade. Unfortunately, Gwen has no idea how to operate the equipment, and as such left the connection open for Serris to hear the entire thing.

 Jason: Gwen, I gave you the kill signal.

Gwen: Right, 'we're dead.' [She repeats the gesture.] I was agreeing with you. Like I know where the damn button is!

  • Parodied in Saving Silverman by Jack Black and Steve Zahn's characters. They are preparing to sneak into the evil girlfriend's house to kidnap her. Wayne (Zahn) makes a few hand signals that J.D. (Black) doesn't understand.

 Wayne: Come on man, I'm using SEAL signals.

J.D.: Lay off me, I only know the Ranger signals.

  • At the beginning of Ultraviolet, the commando team leader uses the "closed fist" signal for "stop".
  • Monty Python and The Holy Grail
    • Arthur uses some to direct his knights after arriving at the castle with the insulting French guards.
    • The chief of the Knights Who Say Ni holds up a hand to stop his fellow Knights from saying Ni to King Arthur and his party.
    • The enchanter Tim holds up a hand to stop King Arthur's party as they approach the Cave of Caerbannog.
    • Brother Maynard points to his assistants to signal them to retrieve the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.
  • In Return of the Jedi, Luke signals R2 to prepare to launch Luke's lightsabre over right before Luke is forced to Walk the Plank.
  • Free Willy Jesse uses one of his orca training hand signals to cue Willy to jump the breakwater. Also occurs in the sequel, Free Willy 2.
  • Saving Private Ryan shows Pvt. Jackson sending a very sophisticated series of hand gestures down from the bell tower to Capt. Miller during the climax, informing him of the disposition of enemy troops.
  • Used in Love Potion no. 9. When the female lead, Diane, gets a sample of the Love Potion no. 8, she receives the power of a Compelling Voice, of a sexual nature and working only with the opposite sex. Upon entrancing a rich mook, to avoid the potential hassles of being chased, harassed or desired by every single man at her speaking distance, she cleverly puts the mook under the assumption she just enjoys "play the mute game", that is using a simplified form of sign language while in public, and letting him graciously act as her mouthpiece
  • Serenity. While the crew is exploring the planet Miranda, Zoe takes the point position. When some overhead lights come on, she holds up a hand to stop the others, then gestures for them to continue after she decides there's no danger.
  • Blade Runner. At the end of the movie, when Decker is about to leave his apartment with Rachel. He holds up a hand to stop her, then a few seconds later beckons her forward.
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After Colonel Vogel gives a "move forward" signal, a World War I era tank rolls into sight.
  • Invasion of Astro Monster. The leader of Planet X frequently uses hand gestures while speaking, which to some extent appear to convey the same meaning as his spoken words.
  • Clash of the Titans (1981). Perseus uses a "stop" signal to halt the travelers just before they meet Bubo, and also gestures to the soldiers with him as they approach Medusa's lair.
  • In Dobermann, the titular character's girlfriend, played by Monica Bellucci, is deaf and the two communicate solely through sign language.
  • The Silence of the Lambs. In the 1991 film, when the elevator holding the police officers opens, their leader uses a hand gestures to signal them to leave and then uses another gesture to call over another cop waiting outside. He does this because he thinks Hannibal Lecter is hiding on the roof of the elevator listening to them.
  • Mars Attacks (Film)! When the Martians invade the senior citizen center where Richie's grandmother is staying, she's using headphones to listen to her favorite country music. Just for the lulz, one of them silently beckons a large Disintegrator Ray device forward so it can destroy her before she notiuces.
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day. SWAT team leaders use them twice: to direct team movement during the infiltration of Cyberdyne, and to order that tear gas be fired at the T-800.


Literature

  • The Tanith of Gaunts Ghosts have a masterful grasp of this trope. Every member of the regiment has a wide vocabulary of hand signals, and specific characters that have been deafened by artillery fire communicate with a form of sign language.
  • In Red Seas Under Red Skies, there's one scene where Jean appears to be betraying Locke, and Locke panics because he misses Jean's hand signal letting him know it's all an act.
  • In Dune multiple characters use hand signals to give orders to their subordinates. In fact, there are entire sign languages developed separately by the Atreides and the Harkonnens that allow them to communicate irrelevant information verbally and important stuff, with their hands, making sure that even if they are overheard, the enemy won't learn anything.
  • In The Thrawn Trilogy Talon Karrde's smuggler gang use pre-determined physical gestures or turns of phrase to pass covert messages between themselves.
  • In the Protector of the Small quartet the King's Own, a small and highly mobile mounted army, has hand signals for some situations that hardly need them, like a company moving out, and some for situations that do, like scouts reporting that something's close. Kel's sparrows soon learn them.
  • In Mirror Friend Mirror Foe, a ninja family is not only trained in that... They can communicate that way while having a verbal conversation on a totally unrelated matter.
  • Bored of the Rings. When Frito Bugger first sees Stomper the ranger in the Goode Eats & Lodging inn, Stomper uses a variety of hand gestures to invite Frito to meet him in the inn's bathroom in 5 minutes.
  • Used in The Wise Man's Fear; an entire culture uses hand signals to denote emotions instead of facial expression.


Live Action TV

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Initiative uses military sign language, but the Scooby gang doesn't, which makes it hard for Riley to patrol with them.
    • In one episode, Riley pumps his fist up and down, which the other characters interpret as a gesture meaning to follow him. "Like a train. Choo choo!"
  • Used from time to time as serious, occasionally played for laughs in Stargate SG-1. When Stargate Command was once infiltrated, Jack and Daniel, as well as some Red Shirts, assemble outside of the infirmary. Jack, being a military Colonel, fires off a brief set of hand signals. Daniel, being a civilian archaeologist, signals back by exaggeratedly mouthing the words 'there are people in there', complete with pointing, and pantomiming a walking person with his fingers. Exasperated, Jack signals with his fingers the number three, brandishing his weapon with the other hand, indicating they'd simply rush the room together.
    • Parodied in the very meta episode "200", in an imaginary sequence where Jack is turned invisible. On a mission, the other members of SG-1 sit there waiting, at which point Invisi-Jack asks "Can't you see my hand signals?"
  • In Supernatural, Sam and Dean have occasionally been shown using military hand signals when silent coordination is needed. Never explicitly brought up, but their Dad (who trained them to hunt) was an ex-marine, making it likely he taught them.
  • In the Farscape episode "Through the Looking Glass," John Crichton and Aeryn Sun are subjected to a loud, piercing noise that makes it impossible for them to hear one another. Failing to yell loud enough to carry a conversation, they both resort to amusing pantomime for the next several minutes. In particular, Aeryn indicates the sword-wielding D'Argo by chopping with an imaginary sword, and Crichton somehow manages to refer to the diminutive, froglike, hoverchair-riding Rygel by miming a small object floating up and down with his hands.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Doomsday Machine". When Spock relieves Commodore Decker of duty and Decker refuses, Spock gives a hand signal to a nearby security guard, beckoning them over to reinforce his threat to arrest him if he refuses.
  • Amusingly done in an early episode of Sanctuary, Magnus and Ashley are communicating an attack plan (Ashley wants to use a different plan). Magnus finishes the exchange with a signal that Will can't translate and he asks about it. Magnus threatened to cut Ashley's allowance.
  • In Best Love, Dokko Jin gives Ae Jung's nephew a secret hand signal so he could have some alone time with her.
  • On The West Wing, President Bartlett has had a very inconvenient MS attack while traveling to an important conference in China. While he regains some of his mobility by the time Air Force One arrives, he's still confined to a chair and heavily fatigued. CJ tells him to give a signal if he needs a break from the conference, and suggests he tug on his ear to let them know he needs them to make up a "something's gone wrong back home that needs the President on the phone" excuse. Unfortunately, CJ forgets to tell anyone else about this, largely because the President himself didn't take it seriously at first. She's absent for much of the conference, and returns to find the President frantically tugging on his ear.
  • In Murphy Brown, Miles often used the "stretch" and "speed up" signals described under Real Life below.
  • And in ICarly, the "count down from 5 with silent "1" and pointing for "on" is Freddie's Catch Phrase.


Tabletop Games

  • GURPS Fantasy II. The Madlanders have a set of hand signs that they use to communicate with each other while hunting.
  • Dungeons and Dragons.
    • The Drow had a language of hand signs in their original appearance.
    • Forgotten Realms Sourcebook on Harpers also mentioned their own "silent code" of gestures and expresions. High Drow (archaic dialect used mostly in sacred texts and secret talks between priestesses) is said to have its own hand sign system.
    • 1st Edition had alignment languages, which included special signals and gestures.
  • Star Wars saga edition had handsignals in one splatbook handled elegantly as a language. Well worth the cost, if you're playing that sort of campaign.
  • In Nomine (American version) supplement Superiors I: War and Honor. When questioning/interrogating an angel, Dominic's angels communicate with each other using finger/hand codes so as not to tip off the suspect.
  • Neverwhere RPG. Sewer Folk use Handsign (hand signals, mime and touch) to communicate with each other.
  • Paranoia has a skill for this (Twitchtalk). Secret societies often use it for recognition signals (many of which are similar enough to be mixed up).


Video Games

  • The Battlefield series:
    • In the intro cutscene to Battlefield 2142, an infantry squad enters an enemy Titan through the vents. The leader raises a fist, tilts it forward and opens it, pointing his spread fingers forward for "Advance."
    • Mocked in the "Rainbow Sprinkles" trailer for Battlefield: Bad Company. B Company don't understand hand signals, and don't see the point of using them when they're all standing right there anyway.
  • Eddie's orders to his troops in Brutal Legend all have associated hand signals that appear on the orders cross. He even goes through them in the Justified Tutorial: he's allegedly teaching the somewhat thick Headbangers what the signals mean, but he's also teaching the player. Stop is the military raised fist. For follow, he raises his ax. Charge is, appropriately, throwing "the horns".
  • In Metal Gear Solid 4 Guns of the Patriots, you can sometimes spot a PMC squad leader giving hand signals to direct his troops around an area.
  • Day of Defeat has stock phrases in voice (which good bots understand) doubled in silent signals.
  • In Katawa Shoujo, the deaf-mute potential love interest Shizune uses sign language and her best friend/interpreter Misha 'translates'. In her route, however, she and Hisao relay more on written notes.

Western Animation

  • South Park [1]: when the boys are playing detective Cartman uses (made-up) military sign language to communicate with Kyle, but he doesn't understand; so Cartman translates as he goes:

 I - see - two guys - inside - They - have - Sarah Peterson's - doll - you - stupid - Jew!

  • In Ben 10, Grandpa Max shows a knowledge of military hand signs during a stealth mission to rescue giant alien monster eggs (and Ben). It Makes Sense in Context.
  • In Star Wars: Clone Wars, Captain Fordo is completely silent in the heat of battle, and gives orders to his ARC troopers exclusively with hand signals.
  • The Penguins of Madagascar: While infiltrating a plush toy factory, Skipper gives King Julien hand signals to go ahead and keep a lookout. Julien doesn't understand the signals, obviously, so Skipper simply screams the instructions to him, who responds with "Why didn't you just say so?"
  • In B.O.B.'s Big Break, the short made for the Monsters vs. Aliens DVD, General Monger (who was still captain at this point) does a series of silly-looking signals to a team of unseen commandos ready to attack if the monsters tried anything funny. Later it is revealed that there are no commandos, and Monger just likes doing silly signals.
  • The Simpsons: When Homer was in the power plant's baseball team, Mr. Burns instructs him with a series of bizarre hand signals which Homer doesn't understand, mostly because his mind wandered off while Burns was explaining them.
  • The Teen Titans episode "257-494" had Beast Boy trying to make all sorts of complicated hand signals while peering around a corner. The rest of the Titans simply walk past him. He keeps doing it for a few seconds before realizing they've moved on.
  • Jonny Quest episode "Pirates From Below". When Colonel Svedry is up on the underwater prober and about to enter it, he makes a beckoning gesture to his subordinate who is standing on the sand below.
  • The Herculoids episode "The Raiders". Igoo and Zandor use them to signal the beginning of the attack.
  • Played with and Lampshaded in The Venture Brothers.

 Brock: You have no idea what that means, do you?

Hank: Sure I do!

Brock: You're just having fun with your hands, aren't you?

Hank: No...


Real Life

  • In live broadcasting, hand signals are used by the director to communicate with on-air performers:
    • Pointing to the person(s) on stage = "You are now live and on the air" (Usually preceded by a countdown from five in which "one" is not spoken)
    • Clenching fists together and pulling them apart slowly in a stretching motion = "You have more time than material, stretch it out"
    • Spinning open hands over and around one another in a rapid circular/chopping motion = "Hurry up, commercial break/end of show approaching rapidly"
    • Slashing motion across neck = "Stop saying/doing what you are now immediately"
  • Pick a military setting, any military setting: a leader tells his men to stop moving with the distinctive "Hold" signal, a raised fist.
    • Of course, what he does after that is complete gibberish to us civilians.
    • And by extension, there is of course the signals (established around WW 1) which indicate the direction of the enemy, the distance to the enemy, and the amount or type of enemies. With such rapid movements from the CO, a quick offensive action could be carried out by the squad, even if the enemy came form behind. Such signals can (and were) even be carried out using rifles, swagger sticks, walking sticks and umbrellas.
    • Police and SWAT teams often use the same or similar signals to avoid tipping off suspects during raids or situations where announcing their presence would likely result in the suspect bolting or opening fire.
  • Baseball players and coaches communicate in hand signals--catchers signaling what pitch to throw, coaches signaling to batters and base runners--both to hide strategy decisions from the other team and due to the large distances between players that make audible signals impractical.
  • The hand signals used by cyclists are also standard practice for motorists to use when their cars' turn signals are for some reason non-functional. Therefore, you will be most likely required to know them for a Driving Test.
  • Many types of animals are trained with hand signals. One well known example is the use of signals with whales or dolphins. Signals and signs are also used with deaf dogs. Horseback riders use a variant,touch signals, in Dressage.
    • Touch signals are also used in regular riding. Hand signals are also used by deaf people with hearing-aid dogs.
  • In the UK, a system of hand signals known as Tic-tac is frequently used by bookmakers at racecourses to signal betting odds to one another. John McCririck is well known for using these when speaking to camera.
  • Hand signaling is also used in the open outcry format of stock/trade exchange. Further info can be found here.
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