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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- 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.
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