According to Ancient Greek philosophy, there are eight types of love. Ranging from the passionate and romantic, aka eros; to mania (obsessive love) and philia (deep friendship), these classifications remain present in our modern world. How we show, explore and distinguish love is still one of the main puzzles of humanity. What we say can sometimes only go so far, and what if we can’t be heard? Sometimes, gestures with our hands — joined together, fingers bent into shapes — are the best signals of love.
The first known depiction of a heart as a symbol of love is in a 13th century French manuscript; a young man holds a bulbous-shaped object in the direction of his beloved. The first hand heart sign is a little harder to originate, but it pervades pop culture. Taylor Swift elevated the global popularity of the gesture in the 2010’s, directing it to her fans. "The heart-hand symbol means something between 'I love you' and 'thank you,'" she told The New York Times in 2011. Recently, her boyfriend Travis Kelce celebrated a touchdown by flashing the heart symbol right back at her, cementing the significance of the signage.
This hand heart, displayed by millennial couple Swift and Kelce, is formed using both thumbs to form the bottom, bending and connecting the remaining fingers at the fingernails to form the desired shape. In recent years, however, the practice has evolved. Gen Z — pioneers of internet trends, subverting subcultural approaches into pop — now strictly use their index and middle fingers to form the heart, as opposed to the entire hand.
Choosing which hand heart sign to use is, these days, arguably a signal of which kind of love you’re intending to display: cupped whole-hand hearts might appear more earnest, more significant, while Gen Z’s chosen style is more flippant, more casual and cheeky. A Gen Z colleague and source of true expertise told me finger hearts are “simpler, quicker to achieve and require a lot less energy — as with everything Gen Z do (I am a millennial). The heart is more visible to both the sharer and receiver and easier to connect, should another person want to complete the other side.” Perhaps the Greeks would use the whole hand to show pragma — enduring, matured love — and the finger hearts for ludus, the crush, affection between young lovers.
In ASL (American Sign Language), the signal to present love and positivity is a simple, direct gesture. Similar to the ubiquitous ‘rock-on’ hand sign, the fist is formed facing forward, but instead, to show love, the thumb is extended. It’s a clear, recognisable signal that can be used universally, not only for the hearing impaired. Perhaps it’s the sign we should use when the language of love seems too much — or, as the idiom goes, when it’s all Greek to me.
But what of the latest heart-shaped hand sign sweeping stages and TikTok screens? If you’re yet to spot it, it’s a pose in which the index finger and thumb come together like a snap to form a tiny hand held heart. The gesture was popularized in South Korea by ever-adored K-pop idols like actress Kim Hye Soo or the BTS boys. It’s used to express love and gratitude to fans. The fans use it right back, perhaps expressing their mania — that love that is impossible to explain to another — as defined by the Greeks. It’s a newly-added emoji and seems to take even less effort to display than Gen Z’s preferred hand sign.
Each contemporary hand sign insinuates a different gesture of love. It’s clear our manner of expressions must sometimes traverse beyond words. Expressed with subtle yet significant displays of affection that can be seen through a crowd, via your screen, across the table at the family reunion, or in a quiet moment together in a silent, awkward tube carriage. Perhaps one shows love by wearing a ring on their finger, in the shape of a heart, or offering out their hand for another to hold. As we continue to feel love and want to show its meaning in all its forms, maybe the opportunities for gestures will continue to multiply too, into a myriad of poses we can’t even count on both hands.