Stateside: A hand gesture, a hidden meaning

Oct 23, 2012

We know the importance of posture when reading one’s disposition. But how about something as subtle as finger placement?

Stateside’s Cyndy Canty spoke with Michael Lempert, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Michigan, about what these minute gestures convey.

According to Lempert, a candidate is a combination of meticulously crafted elements.

“Not just speech but also gesture, comportment, clothing even hairstyle. Any of these materials can be treated as revelatory, as windows onto who the candidates really are,” said Lempert.

Politicians, when in public, are saying just as much with their bodies as they are with their mouths. But because these messages are often elusive, there exists the need for them to be properly read.

Commentators, according to Lempert, are often responsible for this- they dissect politicians’ hand movements and clothing choices to relay bigger issues.

“They are used to make sense of what a candidate is up to,” said Lempert.

When asked to make sense of last night’s debates, Lempert discovered an irony.

“The irony is that Obama pulled out the flip-flopper attack. Even though Obama was trying to suggest that, with Mitt Romney, we are going back to the Bush era, he was using attacks similar to those used by Bush himself,” said Lempert.

But all the analysis of one’s appearance has other effects that are, in Lempert’s eyes, voyeuristic.  

“I am interested in the predatory voyeurism that our coverage sometimes looks like. Sometimes I feel like I am watching TMZ, where our candidates are being treated as celebrities,” said Lempert.

That’s right. TMZ.

Lempert sees a direct overlap between celebrities and candidates, and the coverage of both, at times, resembles the aforementioned celebrity news site.

He calls it the “TMZ-ization of politics.” Through the habitual characterization of political candidates many voters are often influenced.

Lempert’s colleague Michael Silverstein uses his own term, what he calls “ethno-blooperology.” By this, Silverstein is referring to the function that bloopers have in swaying one’s opinion.

“Look at the way in which articulatory gaffes have been treated as revelatory. Romney referring to Obama as Osama. I think now, these have become almost a scripted move,” said Lempert.

-Cameron Stewart

There are two ways you can podcast "Stateside with Cynthia Canty"