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.
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."
- 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 Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
For 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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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: II
- Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges
that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
- When It's Just Not Your Job
- Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness
making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
- Coercion by Presupposition
- Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it
frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal
responsibility for ending it.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: III
- In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand.
With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses
in the same way doesn't work. Here's why.
- Cultural Indicators of Political Risk
- Because of fire risk, hiking in dry forests during dry seasons can be dangerous. In the forest, we stay
safe from fire if we attend to the indicators of fire risk. In the workplace, do you know the indicators
of political risk?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.