The Point Is . . .

Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer created a bruhaha when she was photographed pointing her index finger at President Obama as the two stood on the tarmac next to Air Force One.  Although the Governor’s face was shielded from the camera, it was apparent from the President’s facial expression that their discussion was possibly heated, not tranquil, and that Brewer’s wagging finger was meant to admonish or challenge, as opposed to making a numeric point, as in “First we must consider….”  The photo, which blazed across the Internet, created a stir that kept pundits on 24-hour cable shows buzzing about whether or not her gesture was one of discourtesy towards Obama; the Governor addressed that question in interviews, saying that she would never be disrespectful to a U.S. President.

My intent in bringing up this issue is not to call Governor Brewer on the carpet, or, in this case, on the tarmac.  I will even accept Brewer’s disclaimer on its face value, in that she did not mean to insult the President.  However, there is a lesson for all of us to learn from this incident, which is about the power of nonverbal communication. Body language is not only revealing, it often speaks louder than words, conveying attitude, judgment, and emotion. Therefore, the important point is, it’s best to not point your finger at someone, unless you mean to scold, to shame, to deride, to insult, or to diminish a person’s actions, behavior, or views.  And while you might claim that you meant no harm, your body language may well belie your words.

Ironically, earlier drafts of my recent book Saving Civility had a “tips” section at the end of each chapter.  Although my editor considered this particular tip obvious and unnecessary—since everyone already knows that it is a wrong thing to do—I offered advice against pointing a finger at someone, as so doing can provoke, incite, and even derail a discussion, in the same way that hurling an incendiary comment can fan the flames of conflict.  Regardless of what we say verbally, our body language can often reveal our real intent.  Pointing a finger, thus, can be a tipping point in any discourse, moving it from civil and neutral to contentious and disrespectful.

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