Dismissive gestures are often tactics for expressing status, consolidating control, or displaying power. As such, their users seek to influence the perceptions of a larger number of people beyond the target — usually the witnesses.
When used intentionally in this way, these techniques are coercive to varying degrees, because they achieve the desired effect not by eliciting admiration or affection, but rather through fear or intimidation. And when fear or intimidation is the goal, it's always possible that the user of the gesture actually feels fearful or intimidated, too. If you can keep that possibility in mind when you encounter a frequent user, you can more easily manage your own responses to the gestures.
- Spare me!
- Looking upward, as if to Heaven, communicates, "Spare me!" Sometimes this is combined with hands placed palm-to-palm, fingers pointing upward, in the prayer position; with eye rolling; with a vocalization, "Puh-lease…;" or with the mouthing of words.
- Throw me a lifeline
- Breaking eye contact by closing the lids and turning away to look at someone else can be a plea for a lifeline. Breaking eye contact in itself isn't necessarily dismissive. But turning to look at another, even expressionlessly, can communicate, "Please help me out of this or at least vaporize this guy."
- Dropping a bag of garbage
- Dropping a report from an excessive height says, "This is a package of something foul." The greater the height, the greater the effect. For extra zing, raise it up before dropping it, or perform the whole action over a wastebasket.
- Counting your fingers
- Looking at one's hand after a handshake communicates distrust. It suggests that your partner's hand might have been dirty, or that you're counting your fingers to check that none have been stolen.
- Engaging in sidebar conversation
- In meetings, sidebars are always a little impolite, but the expression of disdain escalates with the volume of the sidebar exchange. Sidebar laughing is especially corrosive.
- Asynchronous head shaking
- Shaking the head "No," is OK if you're asked a question and the answer is No. But shaking the head while the other is talking can feel to the speaker like an interruption saying, "You're out of your mind."
- Talking while departing
- Dismissive gestures vary
from culture to culture
- Continuing to talk to someone while turning and walking away, especially if you're saying something the recipient doesn't want to hear, prevents a response. It says, "Whatever you have to say about this is of no interest to me." Extra points for walking into an elevator and having the doors close at exactly the right time.
Dismissive gestures vary from culture to culture, and since every organization has its own microculture, people in your organization probably have some unique dismissive gestures. To see them, you have to look. More next time. First 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 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:
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- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can
we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- Unwelcome Workplace Hugs
- Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are
simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
- Bottlenecks: I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly
find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?
- 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?
- Critical Communications
- From time to time, we're responsible for sending critical communications — essential messages
that the intended recipients must have. It's a heavy responsibility that can bear some risk. A strategy
for managing those risks involves three messages.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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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.