Tuesday, October 9, 2007

the origins of eloquence in a gesture

...can be found in an upturned palm, we learned earlier this year in John Tierney's charming report in the New York Times. Emory University researchers studied chimpanzees and bonobos, which use the palm-up gesture consciously to ask for food and "more abstract forms of help, creating a new kind of signal that some researchers believe was the origin of human language," Tierney writes. Today, he notes, we use it to ask for food, objects, money, divine help, cooperation, pardon, acceptance and other nuanced concepts. It emanates, he writes, from the "crouch display" that animals use when confronted with a threat; its opposite, the "high-stand display," belongs to an aggressor. Here's how it evolved:
The human remnant of the crouch display is a shrug of the shoulders, which lowers the head and rotates the forearms outwards so that the palms face up. Conversely, the high-stand display persists in humans as a rotation of the forearms and palms in the opposite direction, producing the domineering palm-down gesture used by a boss slapping the conference table or an orator commanding quiet from his audience.
Emory's primatologists "note that gestures are controlled by the same part of the brain that controls speech. But it is also possible, they said that gestures and speech evolved jointly to create language," the article notes. And that lets you use simple gestures, like the upturned palm, to express more complex ideas with metaphors, emotion and sympathy.

In our "Eloquent Woman" focus groups earlier this month, participants alternately bemoaned and praised similar behavior in women speakers -- particularly at the start of a presentation, when many apologize (for being late, for the room conditions, for replacing another speaker), or spend much of their time thanking and acknowledging others. Our participants described this as women seeking to include and connect with the audience, and even as a way to seem less threatening -- a verbal version of the crouch display? Perhaps so, but it's a tactic now used by very prominent male politicians, as Tierney notes in his "TierneyLab" discussion area (click here for the discussion on the palms-up gesture). He writes:
Skilled politicians instinctively woo audiences with the upraised palms that made Mr. Clinton and Ronald Reagan seem so genial and helpful (or contrite, when the occasion demanded). Veteran politicans know to avoid palm-down gestures unless they’re attacking enemies or trying to look strong (like Richard Nixon desperately flashing his victory signs as his presidency was collapsing).
Kathleen Hall Jamieson's book, Eloquence in an Electronic Age, takes a long look at Ronald Reagan's "self-disclosive, narrative, personal, "womanly" style," and notes:
The broadcast age has rendered the combative, data-driven, impersonal "male" style obsolete. Two ironies result: only to the extent that they employ a once spurned "womanly" style can male politicians prosper on radio and television; meanwhile, in their surge toward political equality, women abandoned and must now reclaim the "womanly" style.
Leave us your comments here, or join the discussion over at TierneyLab--palms up, of course.

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