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Secret Hand Signals, Part I

Billingsley-m.jpgCommunication. It's the lifeblood of any good relationship--business or personal. Nobody knows that better than business owners. They talk, write, e-mail, Twitter, blog, and yell and scream. But what about subtle communication? The kind nobody senses is being carried out. What if your hands could say everything you want to say with simple movements and gestures?

In the first of a two-part series on business owners and secret hand signals, I take a look at Sherman Billingsley, a man who in his heyday from the 1920s through the 1960s was famous for both the club he owned and his ability to communicate secretly and silently with staff via complex and covert hand signals.

Billingsley owned The Stork Club, a once-renowned establishment on the edge of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where socialites and celebrities jousted for his attention, the best table and the best (read: free) service. But everybody knew that, at least at The Stork Club, Billingsley controlled his customers' fates. And he did so through secret hand signals.

Like a man manipulating his marionettes, he'd send messages to his staffers who, in turn, would carry out his plot twists while customers remained blissfully unaware.

Here are some of Billingsley's hand signals and their meanings, courtesy of LIFE:

Billingsley-1.jpg

© Time Inc.

Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley w. palm up on table, one of his signals to nearby assistant which means "Bring a bottle of champagne," while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

Photographer: Alfred Eisenstaedt

Billingsley-2.jpg © Time Inc.

Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley pointing down, one of his signals to nearby assistant which means "Bring a round of drinks," while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

Photographer: Alfred Eisenstaedt
Billingsley-3.jpg © Time Inc.

Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley w. hand on tie, one of his elaborate signals to his nearby assistant which means "No check for this table," while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

Photographer: Alfred Eisenstaedt
Billingsley-4.jpg © Time Inc.

Closeup of Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley w. hand to nose, one of his signals to nearby assistant which means "Not important people" or "Their check is no good." while sitting w. patrons over his usual Coca Cola, in the Cub Room.

Photographer: Alfred Eisenstaedt


Billingsley might be more famous for his hand signals, but he had nothing on some of today's less notorious entrepreneurs.

Dana Korey, chairman of order at Away With Clutter, an organizing firm in San Diego, utilizes many secret hand signals. "We're in a very personal business," Korey says. "We see things in people's homes that nobody else does; therefore we need to be able to express ourselves in a way that [doesn't] make clients feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about their experience."

Here is a smattering of Korey's secret signals and the resulting actions her staff takes:

  • Hand on chin = client is complaining about something Korey needs help with.
  • Hand on chin and index finger over mouth = be quiet and leave room because client is having emotional meltdown and Korey needs to focus all attention on him.
  • Arms folded = move faster because we need to be finished soon.
  • Hands on hip = husband and wife clients are fighting and we need to send in a referee to get them back on track. Korey says husband and wife often argue about who is the messier of the two, and they each point fingers at each other. "When that happens, we run interference and get them back on track to remind them that the goal is getting them organized and not pointing fingers about how or who got it that away," she says.
  • Twist neck like you are stretching it = the client is talking too much, making excuses for the mess and putting off needed decisions regarding what to keep or throw away. "We then step in and get them back on track because we know that talking doesn't get the job done ... doing the work gets the job done."

And now for some secret hand signal advice from Entrepreneur.com's Liz Wilson, intrepid secret hand signal consultant, on proper hand signage, naming conventions and meanings.

The Dr. Evil: Place your right-hand pinky finger on the corner of your mouth and raise your right eyebrow while squinting. Meaning: "Lead the client over to the large, white X mark in the middle of the floor. Once he's standing directly on it, pull the crank to open the chute leading to the torture chamber."

The Subway: Place both hands with palms vertical one foot apart and about two-and-a-half inches from your face, at mouth level. Then make like you're chewing a toasted sub sandwich. Meaning: "These clients are not worth 5 cents of my time! Throw their greasy selves out with the trash, and the wrappers from my $5 foot-long lunch while you're at it."

The Hokey Pokey (Left foot in, shake it all about): Do I even need to explain this one? You pick up your left foot about a foot from the floor, and twist your ankle (either clockwise, or not clockwise--your choice) several times at a rapid pace. Like a good swim kick, it's best to keep your knee in locked position: It's not shake your leg all about. Meaning: "This person is not as uncool as me. I'm not cool with that. Assign her to somebody else."

The Hokey Pokey (Turn yourself around): Sway your hips slightly to the tune in your head as you turn in a circle. Jazz hands are optional but, if used, should be subtle. Meaning: "This person is all right. I'm cool with that. Let's make a deal and be happy."

There's a saying coined by yours truly that goes, "If you're going to pick your boogers, you might as well flick them with pizazz." The saying also rings true for secret hand signals. That is to say, if you're going to provide your staff uber-secret, complex hand signals to follow, you might as well brand them.

Coming next week: A Q&A with two business owners who have some very special secret hand signals and code words.

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