Gendered Gestures


Posted Oct 29, 2010


In a past Psychology Today article, I make the argument that the division between large and small, aggressive and condensing applies to how we take up space and mark territory. These themes also hold true to male and female gestures. Men stake their claim by using large gestures and are rewarded for doing so. "These are my ideas and they are good ideas. Don't question me on them!" Men convey these sentiments while stretch their arms, and generally use larger, more sweeping gestures than women do. Big gestures take up more space; they are more commanding and aggressive.

Bob, the CEO of a telecommunications company, was making a presentation to the management team. I was seated up front. It was a lengthy exposition, and at some point, I had to excuse myself to make a run to the ladies' room. As I quietly got up to leave, he inadvertently hit me with an outreached hand. He had been flailing his arms in harmony with his enthusiasm for a new project. Caught by surprise, I actually stumbled, and everyone laughed. Bob apologized for almost decking me. "I was trying to bowl everyone else over with my new project, but I guess I got you in the process," he chuckled.


Women also use gestures to their own advantage. Sometimes they even evolve a secret code to communicate with one another. This happened with a management team I was working with. The women in the organization had identified Dave as the problem guy. He was the source of a lot of their complaints as he had little empathy or understanding for working women's issues.

The women in the management group developed a code among themselves. They made the letter "L" for loser with thumb and index finger and displaying it on their cheeks every time he spoke, giving the appearance that they were holding their chins. This they saw as a humorous outlet for a difficult situation. Unfortunately, they let me in on their little game, and I became very distracted by this gesture. Sometimes, the women themselves had to work hard not to laugh. After a while, I could not even look at them. I was afraid others on the management team would begin to feel something was up!

In general, women's animated gestures add value to a charismatic presentation-a necessary component of the persuasive process. An audience member once told me, "Your gestures alone communicate the enthusiasm you have for your work. I don't think you could talk without them. I bet if we tied your hands together you couldn't talk. But your enthusiasm is contagious. You get me excited and on board with your ideas. I actually start to believe and I am convinced of what you say!"

Since gestures are important in conveying enthusiasm, women whose communication style is gesture-deprived (elbows pinned to their sides during public speaking) should develop a more expressive approach to their presentations. They can practice in private and/or non-threatening settings incorporating appropriate gestures into their nonverbal vocabulary.

However, there is the possibility of going overboard in this arena. Women should pay attention to the level of animation conveyed in their gestures when they become highly energized. Unfortunately, when the excitement takes over, messages may be lost. Wild gesticulation can be distracting. A highly animated woman runs the risk that her listeners pay more attention to and maintain more eye contact with her hands than with her and her ideas. What should she do?

I suggest she videotape herself talking with a willing colleague or friend to observe how she uses gestures. She can monitor herself, making sure that her gestures closely accompany her speech and that her enthusiasm for her ideas is congruent with her behavior. She should also observe her other nonverbals. If her vocal cues are also becoming overly animated , it might be all too much!

Women's business fashions have at times been modeled on men's attire; a woman could similarly modify masculine gestures to fit her feminine form. Petite women have license to use bigger gestures. Indeed, it's often the only way for them to get attention. But women must also recognize the quandary they find themselves in if they choose to use more masculine expansive or aggressive gestures. Some people will react negatively. However, if women condense and coil up, they will lose credibility. On the other hand, lively gestures can covey passion and enthusiasm, commanding the attention of one's listeners.

How to resolve this difficulty? It's a balancing act. I suggest that if women must come on strong in one nonverbal area, they can back off in another. So, for instance, they may use expansive gestures but also wear a "pink suit" to appear more feminine. Softer speech, smiling, or humor will counterbalance the dominant gestures and lighten things up. One caveat here, however: when women counterbalance in this way, especially with smiling, they risk contradicting their message and falling into the Smiley Face Syndrome. The way to remedy this is to come on verbally and nonverbally strong, then move to a softer but congruent verbal/nonverbal style. Whether powerful or more submissive, the point is to remain consistent in your verbal and nonverbal cues.

Also problematic are women learn new gestures to expand their repertoires, but do not integrate them smoothly at first. For instance, women taking assertiveness training learned new ways to behave, but they hadn't yet assimilated these into their collection of acceptable behaviors. A woman might say, "I'm so upset with this," but then let too many beats pass before pounding the table-the gesture, when it finally comes, is way out of sync with her words. If a woman's nonverbal gestures aren't timed to flow compatibly with the verbal, she will appear awkward. Moreover, she will be sending incongruent messages that hurt and undermine her credibility and that even prompt others to laugh at her social ineptitude. She must develop awareness that not only should the flow of her verbals and nonverbals be congruent but they must also be synchronous.