I learned it at my mother’s knee: It’s not polite to point.
I was reminded of that by the picture of Nancy Pelosi in my last post. I have no idea what she’s talking about in that picture, but her pointing makes her look strident, imperious, and scolding. Unpleasant and not at all appealing. And perhaps she meant it that way. If so, she certainly succeeded. But if she was trying to make a point or convince or persuade people, then the pointing was totally out of place and served only to alienate the audience. To me the lesson is clear: don’t point.
I notice when people point, and if the pointing is directed at me, my reaction will inevitably be negative. It’s little better than standing nose-to-nose in front of me and poking me in the chest to make a point. It’s confrontational, condescending, and inflammatory.
During the endless campaign of 2008, I noticed a lot of pointing. Hillary Clinton points a lot, and it’s often when she’s in attack mode — accusing, berating. It’s not becoming and it leaves a negative impression. She even points with both hands. Awkward, not doubly emphatic.
One public speaking expert discussed Hillary’s rehearsed techniques. The expert explained how she would take the stage and as the audience applauded, turn to different parts of the room, pointing and waving as though she recognized someone she knew. Interesting. I’m not sure when pointing into the crowd became an “in” thing to do, but it reminds me of something rock stars do at a concert.
I noticed an odd little gesture frequently used by Barack Obama. He uses it for emphasis, where others might point. To me it always looks like a conscious effort not to point — a point with a carefully restrained forefinger.
There is, of course, The Pointing to which all others must be compared, the one I am always reminded of when anyone points — Bill Clinton’s crooked, wagging “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” finger pointing. It made such an impression on me that every instance of pointing since then is likely to recall it. I don’t know if it was the infamous denial, the waggle, or that appropriately crooked finger, but he should never, ever again raise his forefinger to anyone. Apparently the man just can’t help himself.
My mom, the original Miss Manners, always told me not to point, but it took Bill Clinton to drive the point home. (Argh, I can’t believe I just said that.)