Left Handedness

August 13 is International Left Handers’ Day and Rhiannon poked a corner of the Hive Mind and asked if it’d consider taking a look at handedness as a social justice issue. They’re doing a series of postings on the topic, which you should check out.

I lived for 13 years with a left handed person, and I recall it occasionally was a problem, but I admit I never thought about it much. I remember mostly complaints about privilege-alertfinding decent scissors – stuff like that, so I replied to Rhiannon: “I’ve mostly worked in the software industry and I’d always thought that computing wasn’t so bad…

Things I hadn’t thought of:

  • Large software companies spend huge amounts of code effort on internationalization, readable fonts, text readers, sticky keys, etc. It’s good that they do all that, but left-handed people are expected to just … tough it out.
  • Companies like Apple design things like iPhones that have internal antennas on the left side, so that if you’re left-handed and hold the phone naturally, you get poor data service.
  • Software such as browsers use right-side-scrolling models, which means if you’re using your slickly interfaced smart phone, and you want to use it naturally, the palm of your hand blocks your view of the screen (right? You’ll hold the phone in your right hand, then reach across to the right side of the phone to drag the widget – except now you can’t see anything.
  • Companies like Apple, that pride themselves on good design, respond to these kinds of complaints with a brilliant suggestion: “then don’t hold it that way!” So, you get a $350 arm-tchotchke from Apple that sucks even worse than usual* if you’re left-handed.

I have to admit I’m embarrassed that I never really thought of any of this stuff. In some of the products I’ve designed, I tortured my engineers over internationalization – to make sure the software would look right and act right with text that goes right-to-left and not just left-to-right like English does. So they added code to make the user interface work correctly but I’d be willing to bet there were some issues a left-handed person would still encounter. We actually consulted with a friend who writes in Japanese, to try to make sure our internationalization efforts would work, but we never asked a left-handed person.

The world is getting a bit better; new interfaces on some applications allow you to move components around and change your layout. Mostly. But things like the right side scroll-bar are built into the operating systems’ windowing toolkit, not controlled by the application; you’ve got to jump some serious code-hoops to make that movable** – I am pretty sure that my consistent hatred of complex layout widget code has resulted in some remarkably inflexible interfaces. But, in my defense – other than a few Visual Basic 1.0 things like a mail client and some utilities, I’ve never written anything with a user interface at all: once again, saved by the command-line! On the other hand (so to speak) I’ve managed development projects that resulted in graphical interfaces, and never given the left-handed a thought at all.

Just use your other hand

“Just use your other hand”

Left handed people make up about 10% of the population and I imagine that a left hander who found a product that was designed to work well for them – they’d be inclined to buy it. Right there, that means a pretty decent, subtle, market push that might make one product succeed where another failed. And in the world of software, that’s a huge, huge deal. I had to look around to find a Japanese friend who was willing to look at our internationalization in our interface – with 10% of our friends and family being left-handed, finding a “consultant” ought not to be a big deal.

first world problems

first world problems

I’m sitting here looking at my super cool game controllers I use to play Elite, and now I realize that they probably spell “nightmare” for a left-handed person. How would you fly with the weapo ns system select toggle in the palm of your hand? Or with your throttle-side targetting hat on your pinky. What does the air force do, only hire right-handed pilots? I’m guessing that the flight crew of typical commercial airliners get the Apple response: “use your other hand.”  In the case of a computer game – sure, you can say “first world problems” but really what I am seeing is “lost 10% of the market” and I don’t even want to think about “my airline pilot is less efficient because of the control layout.”

When I was a kid, I was severely dyslexic. My parents happened to know a researcher who had been developing a training program intended to help reinforce handedness, so I wound up being a test subject at an early age. To tell the truth, I don’t remember much except the bright lights, the electric shocks, and the anal probe… Oh, wait, that was when the aliens kidnapped me.***  Joking aside, what I basically did was reinforce my right-handedness to the point where my left hand is useful mostly for power and I can’t really do anything fine with it. If I weren’t in the 9/10 of the population for which the world is made, I’d probably not be as awkward with my left hand because I would have to be better with it.

So: give the left-handed a thought. And bring back the command line.

Nerdy article about left-handed iPhone fails.

PS – a big “thank you” to Rhiannon for all the infoz.

(* I mean, unless all you wanted was conspicuous consumption)

(** Some code masses will be better than others)

(*** Not intended to be a truthful statement)


  1. anat says

    My husband and his siblings are all left-handed. Living in a world dominated by right-handed folks, they learned to use their right hands for tasks requiring force and the left ones for tasks requiring precision. Nowadays my husband is for the most part ambidextrous (great for his ping-pong playing – unfamiliar opponents are totally confused when he switches the paddle to the other hand).

    BTW my sister-in-law was surprised to know that as a right-handed person I use the same hand for all tasks.

  2. Lofty says

    I can do a fair number of things left handed except for writing and I consider myself mostly right handed. The computer mouse is mostly in my left hand. Interestingly I see ebay has a selection of left handed scissors, the lack of which I believe is one of the pet peeves of the left handed.

  3. kestrel says

    I am a both-hander mostly because I was forced in school to use my “other” hand. My parents and family were cool with me using whatever hand I wanted, but holy cow, my teachers in school were NOT. This has come in “handy” (haha) a few times. I used to work on a computer entering daily sales data; for some reason, the only station had been designed for a lefty. Everybody else struggled to do this task because they were all right-handed; I just switched what hand I used.

    Since I watched right-handers having such a hard time performing that task on a station designed for left-handers, I can sympathize. But it seems it does not go the other way very often. It’s a very small way to be different, but there are still those who want everybody to all be the same. High time we got over that…

  4. says

    Since I watched right-handers having such a hard time performing that task on a station designed for left-handers, I can sympathize.

    Maybe, when they’re at an impressionable age, we right-handers should be forced to use left-handed scissors for an arts and crafts class.

    I do see a lot of left handed scissors on amazon.com today…

  5. says

    as a right-handed person I use the same hand for all tasks

    Yeah, unless it’s lifting something, or holding a steering wheel in place, or providing power or support, I’m pretty much one-handed.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    Back in the before time, our single-botton computer mouse was on the left.
    Paper and pen was on the right.
    When I frequented public houses I became quite good at darts with my left hand.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’m strongly left-handed (and -footed), but use my right hand for scissors, and shoot rifles and handguns right-handed (but bows left-handed). The scissors was probably just adaptation on my part, but the guns puzzled me until I realized my right eye was dominant.

    The only annoyance was writing with fountain pens in school.

  8. says

    After the sudden death of my last computer (they all die a sudden premature death), I was rushed, feeling stressed, and trying to keep cost down when getting a replacement, and I ended up with a machine I do not like in any way, but one thing I never noticed at all, until I’d had it home for a while, was that it’s a sinister side machine. It has helped me understand the annoyance and frustration so many left handed people must go through every single day.

  9. says

    I swapped a few emails with a friend who flies commercial jets with loads of passengers. He said that you learn a “side” of the cockpit and you have to just get used to the controls regardless of what hand you prefer. When you get promoted from 1st officer to pilot, you get to adjust your brain and you have to do it real quick.

    It makes sense, I suppose. For some of the controls (see the cockpit illustration above) the only way to make them reachable by both pilot and 1st is to put them between them, which pretty much enforces the left/right thing. Now I am wondering if there are any controls that exist in duplicate/triplicate, such as fire suppression systems or whatever.

    I am still wondering if there are any left-handed A10 pilots. If there are, they’re right-handed when they’re in the cockpit!

  10. kestrel says

    About flight controls: I can’t remember anymore as it’s been too long… does anyone know if the collective pitch control on a helicopter is on different sides? I know some machines are flown from the left front seat and some are flown from the right (it depends which way the rotor turns, this is for the smaller aircraft). It would matter, because the balance has to be really good between cyclic and collective pitch. What a nightmare that would be, if it *is* on different sides!

  11. NYC atheist says

    As a musician, I can add that while guitars come in lefty (for an inflated price, manufacturing reasons) violins are ALWAYS to be played righty. Bow in right hand, finger with left. And left handed pianists are very good at bass parts, more clumsy on treble.

  12. says

    NYC atheist@#12:
    So, for violinists, Apple’s answer is the right one: “use your other hand.”

    I guess in an orchestra, having one bow going the opposite direction might result in some lethal bow-poking incidents.

  13. NYC atheist says

    @13 Marcus

    That, and it’s kind of arbitrary which task is for which hand. To me, it’s very natural to finger with the left and bow/pluck/strum with the right, but I can imagine that if it were always the reverse I would feel that that is more comfortable. On a side note, in any musical style beside classical, you tend to have one fiddler who can stand anywhere, so that concern doesn’t apply, but they always play right handed anyway.

    As to bow attacks, I actually do that to annoy my wife. I’ll sit to her right on the couch while she’s watching tv and play, and ‘accidentally’ poke her shoulder with the bow.

  14. corwyn says

    Lefties have a life expectancy about 7 years shorter than righties IIRC. It would probably qualify for ADA protection, if it were anything else.

    Thank you kindly.

  15. cartomancer says

    Whiteboards are fun when you start using them a lot as a left-hander. You quickly learn to keep your arm off the plane to avoid smudges. Mind you, our joined-up lower-case script itself was formulated by right-handers, so if I want what I write to be readable by anyone but myself (and even then not always) I tend to use all capitals.

    Even very simple technology like doors can be an issue. It was quite the revelation I had when I realised that most people don’t have to cross their arm over their body to reach door handles, and could walk up to and open doors in one smooth movement. Analogue clocks are another one – to strongly left-handed people the “clockwise” direction is much less natural for “forwards” than the “anticlockwise” direction. Same with safe dials and pretty much any other kind of rotary device. Though, as ever, we learn to get by. I often wonder whether the operating controls for a car cause problems – a British left-hand drive car has the gearstick on the left of the steering wheel, while a continental right-hand drive car has it on the right. Do left-handed French drivers suffer and right-handed English ones likewise (I don’t drive myself, so I can’t say from experience).

    I get very frustrated in restaurants that lay out your cutlery too. It’s always arranged for a right-handed person. Always. I make a point of laying the table at home for dinner in an entirely left-handed set-up to show the family how it feels. They rarely get it.

    Perhaps the most egregious example from video game history I can think of is Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The game was originally made for the Gamecube system, and as he had been in all his previous incarnations, the main character Link was left-handed (creator Shigeru Miyamoto is left-handed, and tends to make his characters likewise). When it came to adapting it for the Wii, however, Nintendo wanted the controls to be such that Link swung his sword when the player made a swinging action with the Wii controller. So they flipped the entire world along the y-axis, making left into right and east into west, so that the majority of players (the right-handed ones) would feel like their actions were replicated on screen. As a left-hander, needless to say, I was out of luck. When I swung the controller with my left hand, my on-screen character swung the sword with his right. In the opposite direction to the one I wanted too. It made playing the game very difficult. I tended to shoot things with arrows a lot.

  16. cartomancer says

    Scissors, funnily enough, I’ve rarely had problems with. Most scissors are symmetrical these days anyway, rather than moulded for a particular hand.

    If we are viewing chirality through the lens of privilege and discrimination, however, then I think it should probably be pointed out that there is quite a dearth of representation of left-handers in most interactive fiction and media. Sticking with video games, it is almost always the case that your character is right-handed by default and that can’t be changed. Indeed, in some shooters it used to be the case that you had to pick up special “left-handed” pistols when you wanted to shoot with two guns at once, the default version being “right-handed” even though a pistol is symmetrical. In old-style RPGs you almost always equipped a weapon to the right hand and a shield to the left, and weren’t able to do it the other way round. Ally and enemy models are invariably right-handed. I’m a big miniatures wargamer too, and it’s the same there – left-handed figures are very hard to find. In non-interactive media such as film and TV it tends to be less prominent, given that many actors are left-handed and directors rarely insist on them doing things with their weaker hand just for the sake of it. The chirality of characters in books is almost never touched on unless it is a key plot point.

  17. says

    It was quite the revelation I had when I realised that most people don’t have to cross their arm over their body to reach door handles, and could walk up to and open doors in one smooth movement.

    Arrrrrgh, I never thought of that, either!!!!

  18. says

    In old-style RPGs you almost always equipped a weapon to the right hand and a shield to the left, and weren’t able to do it the other way round

    I guess it’d be OK if you were playing a footsoldier in a sword/shield unit that fought in close order. I’ll bet the way the Roman legions dealt with left-handed troops was they became archers, or the centurion told them which hand was their preferred hand.

  19. chigau (違う) says

    Clockwise isn’t about righthandednesscentrism, it’s about Northernhemispherecentrism.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    cartomancer @16:

    to strongly left-handed people the “clockwise” direction is much less natural for “forwards” than the “anticlockwise” direction.

    I’m strongly left-handed, and I have no idea what you mean. How so?

  21. NYC atheist says

    @16 Cartomancer
    Actually, the British system is better for right handers because you keep the dominant hand on the wheel, and the more often dominant right eye can see better from the left side of the road. All things being equal, it is safer for a country to drive on the left.
    As a USAmercan though, most of us use automatic transmissions.

  22. says

    Merci beaucoup for the post.

    cartomancer (#16) –
    Marcus Ranum (#19) –

    On most buildings, it’s the right side door to go in or out.

    But it’s not just doors. There’s photocopiers, microwave ovens, older televisions, radios, automated ticket gates at train stations, etc. Refrigerator doors can be switched to open either way (mine opens to the right), but that has more to do with accomodating kitchen layouts than handedness.

    corwyn (#15) –

    No. Those left handed people are still alive, but falsely counted as “right handed”. As children, they were forcibly coerced into use their other hand, and never switching back because they grew up that way. That’s what it was like for me in the 1970s, parents and teachers trying to force me to switch hands, though I never did.

    – Rhiannon

  23. roachiesmom says

    Gonna weigh in on this. I write left handed. I can write right handed, but it’s tedious and awkward, so I only do it when it’s somehow absolutely necessary, and I do better mirror writing with that hand then forward. And I carry on my left side: if I try to keep a backpack strap on my right shoulder, a toddler (back in the day, feline furkids these days) on my right hip, or anything in my right hand, I switch within mere moments, usually without even realizing I did so until sometime after the fact. Yet I use my right hand for almost everything else, or use both pretty equally.

    In first grade (1972) I had what may be a pretty singular 70s experience of having a teacher who allowed me to use left handed scissors. In fact, she insisted. More in fact, she would actually reprimand me (and punished me on several occasions) if she caught me using right handed scissors. The problem? Even in first grade, I could not cut right handed. I could not use those damn scissors at all, my left hand is and has always been useless for cutting. So first she would be on me for not using the left handed scissors, then she’d be on me and mark off my work for being careless and sloppy. Post-first grade, I don’t remember any teachers paying any particular attention to what hand I did whatever with. But I certainly remember the number of old[er] people in my family and in the church I was dragged to weekly and sometimes strangers on the damn streets, constantly making endless “jokes” and other unnecessary remarks on how bad/tragic it was, that it was the devil in me, that I was bad because of it, that it needed to be beaten out of me. Fun times.

    I have also always been fairly oblivious to a lot of the issues I hear other lefties complain about or have trouble adapting to. I remember at this science camp program I attended in high school, I came across my first left handed person who wrote with his wrist completely curled into a U shape, and I admit I stared for quite awhile (for days; he was one of my lab partners) before asking, “Why on earth do you write like that?” It was bizarrely foreign to me (but honestly, so were other left handed people at that point). He replied that it was so the notebook spirals would not dig into his hand. I still have not figured out why that has never bothered me when I write.

    I mouse right handed — with a traditional handheld mouse. Something else I could not manage left handed if I had to.

  24. Rob says

    I’m a recreational pilot. It depends a lot on the aircraft type. I’ve flown aircraft with a central stick that have critical subsidiary controls on the right hand side (simply because there was no space left on the left hand side. In certain circumstances I had to be able to fly with my left hand when I really wanted to have my dominant hand on the stick.

    Similarly for commercial jets. The captain is seated on the left. Look at a photo of the ubiquitous Airbus A320. Control stick is on the left. Co-pilots is on the right. It’s the same for many aircraft.

  25. cartomancer says


    Maybe it’s not universal, but it’s certainly a thing. Most left-handed shops I’ve been in sell clocks that work backwards, and I’ve very much felt it as a problem. I have always had a terrible job reading analogue clocks.

    I suppose it’s one of those things that’s very easy to adapt to.

  26. cartomancer says

    One wonders, actually, whether being forced to do sword and shield fighting with the shield in the favoured hand is actually all the disadvantage it’s cracked up to be. I suppose if you assume that attacking the enemy is the more important of the tasks then it is, but I get the feeling we tend to privilege the sword in this arrangement and forget about the shield. Surely being quicker and more capable with moving the shield up to block enemy blows is just as important, if not more so? I know I’d be much more keen to avoid enemy blows than to get in some of my own back.

    I suppose there’s a limit to how dextrous one can actually be with a great big shield, like the Greek hoplon or the Roman legionary scutum. Though perhaps the size of such a shield means that even a little bit of extra mobility with it gives comparatively more advantage.

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    cartomancer @27: The only sources I can find for this are left-handed shops, and people referring to left-handed shops (I’ve never been in a left-handed shop). If there were a strong correlation between handedness and rotation preference, I’d expect to see more non-commercial sources. I’d also expect to have heard about it from more of my fellow lefties. You’re the first!

    Not that I doubt your experience, but I’m far from convinced it’s a handedness thing.

  28. corwyn says

    “Most scissors are symmetrical these days anyway, rather than moulded for a particular hand.”

    No, they are not. Molding is only a small part (and I disagree that molding is less common). It has more to do with whether the top blade of the shear is on the left or the right. Where it is really important (metal shears) both handednesses are almost equally common and professionals need one of each.

    @24: “Those left handed people are still alive”

    Check the actuarial tables, they are really dead.

    Thank you kindly.

  29. Ben Wright says

    I am somewhat ambisinister – I write and play snooker with my left hand, do everything else with my right.

    A few years ago, I had wrist pain due to a mixture of sub-clinical hypermobility syndrome and office work and one thing I did to ease it was switch hands for the mouse. I adapted very quickly – I had a lefty neighbour growing up I’d pop round to play games with and he always had the mouse on the left, so it was not entirely unfamiliar.

    Anyone else using my computer tends to have a hell of a time, though, and I’m not sorry. “Can I just move the mouse over to the other side?” “No.” (That’s not me being a dick, the way the cables run up the back of the desk there’s not enough length to move it to the right.)

    For things like mouse buttons (left-click, right-click), it’s entirely arbitrary so it’s no problem. I imagine it might be the same way round with the handedness of HOTAS for me, but maybe not for complete lefties.

    Scissors, now. There was no such thing as a pair of left-handed scissors to be found at school. I learned the crab-grip to use right-handed scissors in my left (pull with your thumb and push with your fingers instead of the other way around), and now I’m stuck with it – left-handed scissors are useless in my hands. The crab grip works (I can actually see exactly where the top blade hits the paper, which it looks like you can’t do if using them in your right hand) but it starts to hurt your thumb quickly.

    I don’t have a smart phone, and I’m probably ambidextrous enough for the right-handed bias in such devices not to matter to me. I’m so used to using keyboard short-cuts and things these days that a link between screen position and action to trigger it (scroll wheel, not scroll bar) seems almost quaint.