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:
- Dismissive Gestures: I
- 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 nonverbal insults.
- Meets Expectations
- Many performance management systems include ratings such as "meets expectations," "exceeds
expectations," and "needs improvement." Many find the "meets" rating demoralizing.
- Columbo Strategy
- A late 20th-century television detective named Columbo had a unique approach to cracking murder cases.
His method is just as effective at work when the less powerful must deal with the powerful.
- Conway's Law and Technical Debt
- Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication
patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt.
- The Risks of Humor at Work
- Humor at work can be useful for strengthening relationships, making connections, and defusing tension.
And it can be risky, too. Some risks: irrelevance to the here and now, leaving out the funny, or ambiguous
sarcasm. Read this post for five more risks.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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