Inappropriate Public Speaking Gestures

Published: 01st May 2008
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This is the second of three articles on gestures for public speakers. This deals with inappropriate gestures. The first article looked at appropriate gestures and the last will deal with mannerisms.

When speaking in front of an audience, gestures enhance the talk as steak sauce enhances meat.

What happens if you inadvertently add too much sauce? What if the lid fell off. It is impossible to undo the damage even though you may try to salvage the meal. Use the wrong gestures and the effect can be the same. It is impossible to undo the damage.

The three aspects of gesturing that speakers need to be aware of include...

Appropriate Gestures
Inappropriate Gestures

Which gestures should not be used by public speakers?

Obviously any gesture that is considered obscene by any standard should never be used. Nothing will damage the credibility of a public speaker more than this. Even using these in jest before taking the podium could damage your credibility now or in the future. You never know where a camera might be saving the moment for future viewers.

When considering the psychology of why people use obscene gestures or even language, it is often related to the feeling the need to empower themselves. So to use such is in effect an admission of having a weak position or even a lack self esteem.

The challenge comes when hand gestures that are common and acceptable in one culture are obscene or otherwise inappropriate in another culture.

There are a few North American hand gestures that in places like South
America, South East Asia, Germany, and Australia are considered anything from rude to lewd.

OK is not OK

They include, the OK sign where the index finger and thumb touch with the remaining three fingers up in the air.

Thumbs down on The Thumbs Up

World War I flying aces and hitch-hikers heed the same warning for public speakers. This gesture is not only rude in some countries, it is even down right crude.

One driver who was just about cut some slack for a traffic offense for being a tourist, on giving the thumbs up sign had the book thrown at him. Thinking he was saying thanks a for being given some slack, he in effect told the officer what he could do with his generosity.

Other Gestures

The follow me with the palm up and the gesture going up is more than a put down. If necessary, holding the palm down and scooping a little air toward yourself is better.

Perhaps one of the most universal body language gestures, shaking the head to say yes or no. Most know up and down is yes, left to right mean no.

In Bulgaria, parts of Greece, what used to be Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Bengal and to some of the tribes of South Africa it is the opposite. If you want to see how much trouble this can get you into, you might want to see the B movie sleeper hit, "The Gods Must Be Crazy."

The V for victory or rabbit ears likewise has various meanings around the world.

Pointing with an index finger can present a thought different than you would like. One US Governor had a challenge with pointing or rather shaking his index finger at the audience. His handlers solved this problem by getting him to hold his index finger down with his thumb. Unfortunately this created a new totally new mannerism.

What can you do?

Take these gestures out of your body language vocabulary all together. Our world is becoming so homogenized, it is impossible to go anywhere and not run into someone from somewhere that a gesture will mean something other than what you intend.

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