The Price of “Poise”

We think with our whole bodies. That’s what a lot of interesting new science seems to prove.

For instance, Susan Goldin-Meadow (U Chicago) finds a tight link between hand gestures and speech in her book Hearing Gestures: If you sit on your hands when you talk, you’re likely to become wordier and less fluent.  If you video someone explaining how they worked through a logic problem and then play the tape back without sound for another viewer, that viewer can typically identify the relationships that the speaker is describing, and (most fascinating) the ideas often show up in gestures before the speaker finds the words.

Given the power of gesture to liberate thought, it’s not surprising that societies would seek to regulate the way some people use their hands when they speak, politicizing an intimate “everyday” aspect of self-expression.

Ann, a participant in one of my workshops, seemed less concerned with making a point than in making a particular impression. She was stilted and formal, and people weren’t following her argument.  One of her colleagues pointed out that her hands seemed stuck, clasped in front of her chest.

“Why don’t you try using your hands to show us your idea?” I suggested.  “Just start moving them, and your natural gestures will take over.”
“A lady doesn’t gesture when she speaks.”
“Tell me about that.”
“My mother taught me poise.  Poise is how people know you’re serious.  Poise is power.”

I tried various invitations without success.  Ann wasn’t interested in conversational gestures.  She kept performing “poise.”  I could see others in the workshop were losing patience.

Finally Carol, the other woman in the session, challenged her:

“You need to try the thing with your hands, Ann, because what you’re doing isn’t working.”
Ann replied, “My mother…”
“Honey, your mother is not here; and we want to see what you’ve got.  So go for it.”

After the laughter died down, Ann agreed to try it just once.  With her hands engaged, the difference was instant and remarkable:  She made her point crisply and with persuasive commitment — and then tears as she saw what poise had cost her.

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