Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 12;   March 21, 2007: Dismissive Gestures: I

Dismissive Gestures: I

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Last updated: July 18, 2019

Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.

When we insult each other, we damage relationships and make achieving our shared goals more difficult. We recognize this, and that's one reason why we accept constraints on direct verbal insults. Yet, sometimes the urge to insult does prevail, and we've created or learned numerous ways to hurt each other without words.

Gen. George Casey, Dep. Sec. Paul Wolfowitz, and Sec. Donald Rumsfeld

Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and General George Casey, all at respective news conferences. The photos are unremarkable except for the similarity of their gestures, which could be experienced as, "Hold it right there, pal." Photos courtesy U.S. Department of Defense.

Like language, humor, and most customs, dismissive gestures vary from culture to culture. While the meanings of various gestures are intuitively clear in your own culture, they can be mysteriously unfathomable in the cultures of others. And they slowly evolve with time. So beware — the items below are based on my own observations in the mainstream US in this first decade of the 21st century.

By examining these tactics, we can take some of the sting out of them, and at the same time reduce the urge to use them ourselves. To that end I offer Part I of my little collection of dismissive gestures. See "Dismissive Gestures: II," Point Lookout for March 28, 2007, for more.

Tossing the document
In a meeting, tossing your copy of the handout, agenda, or report onto the conference table can communicate disdain, especially if you give it a little spin as you toss.
Walking out
Walking out of a meeting, abruptly and without any serious attempt to appear invisible, can communicate anger or disgust.
Heavy-lidded glances to a third party
When one listener looks at another with a heavy-lidded glance, and possibly a tilt of the head, the message is, "Gimme a break," or "She's gotta be kidding."
Heavy sighing
A heavy sigh, sometimes combined with an exaggerated lift of the shoulders, can mean, "I've had enough of this trash."
Eye rolling
Understanding the mechanics
of dismissive gestures
can take some of the
sting out of them
Typically, eye rolling is executed out of the awareness of the target, and that's bad enough. But sometimes we do it face-to-face, and then it's especially stinging.
Distracted self-grooming
Distracted grooming can be flicking or brushing off tiny particles from your own clothing, or from a male's clothing (by a female). The flicking or brushing-off is a rejection gesture, which adds a metaphorical boost.
Looking at your watch
Checking the time can be interpreted as "I wish this boring fool would give it a rest."
Shrugging
A shrug communicates, "I don't care." For extra punch, combine with a facial expression of boredom or disdain.
Disgusted laughing
There are laughs-with, and laughs-at. The disgusted laugh is a laugh-at, and there's nothing funny about it.
Using a mobile device instead of paying attention
At a meeting, this action can communicate, "I have something much more worthwhile to do than to listen to this (drivel)." It's deniable, of course.

Carry an index card with you for a couple of days, and note any dismissive gestures you see. You might need a couple of index cards. I hope you don't need more than that.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Dismissive Gestures: II  Next Issue

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Field Guide to Gestures: How to Identify and Interpret Virtually Every Gesture Known to ManFor more on gestures of all kinds, take a look at Field Guide to Gestures: How to Identify and Interpret Virtually Every Gesture Known to Man, by Nancy Armstrong and Melissa Wagner. It's complete with full-color illustrations. Order from Amazon.com

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