Should a woman act or become submissive because a man uses power gestures?
We don’t usually associate men with grooming or preening gestures. That’s women’s work and considered feminine. However, on our daily commutes, many people forget they are in full view (at least from the waist up) of every passing motorist around them and believe they are isolated in their cars. Consequently, I often see men fixing or combing their hair in their rearview mirror or adjusting their clothing much the way a woman might. We all know what happens to a man who uses more feminine gestures in our society. He may be ridiculed and ostracized. Indeed, we are so tightly bound by socialized gender norms that men who use feminine gestures are often labeled or perceived as gay—yet another indicator of our homophobic society.
But what happens when a woman uses more masculine gestures? Women have been socialized not to stand out and most feel uncomfortable doing so. Yet, a recent article in Executive Female described how Carly Fiorina used relatively masculine gestures while engaged in a highly publicized proxy fight with board members of Hewlett-Packard. “Photos printed of HP’s Carly Fiorina grew increasingly fierce,” the article explained, “with fists clenched or index finger pointing.” She was fighting for her corporate life, and she won the battle. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was named the “Iron Maiden” and was notorious for aggressive gestures such as pointing her finger during a political speech or when Parliament booed her.
A woman who employs dominance gestures—she is expressive and uses big arm movements because she’s excited about what she’s discussing—takes up space and makes her presence known. One who uses more aggressive gestures such as finger pointing or table-pounding can be perceived as being hostile. Both kinds of behavior can render a woman the target of taming campaigns by men and other women who don’t like that she’s acting like a man. Feminine means little, but such an expressive woman is getting big—too big, in some people’s opinion.
While these are more extreme examples, we all need to become more “self-conscious” of what gestures we are employing and the impact they have on others. Both men and women can make minor adjustments to fit the needs of the context and the opposite sex, especially within the framework of Gender-Flexing. They can begin first by observing how others react to their gestures. Look at people when you are talking to them. Are they crowding into your space? Are they backing away from you to allow room for your expansiveness?
A male friend of mine was infuriated when he discovered the tire mechanic did not properly secure all the lug nuts on his SUV when replacing the snow tires. This carelessness endangered Geoff’s safety. When he stormed into the tire dealership hot under the collar to report his frustration, the female store manager and the male assistant manager both took a couple of steps back to get out of firing range of Geoff’s big gestures.
It’s clear that men will continue to employ “power” gestures such as pointing, shaking a fist, and pounding the table, and there is a time and a place for these bold behaviors. If it is in the context of persuasion and they want to use them to make an important point, of course they should. But we must also become aware of and understand the overpowering effect aggressive gestures can have. Sometimes these grand gestures can shut out the listener, especially if the listener is a woman. She doesn’t want to go up against his bold gestures. She can’t match them—or she chooses not to. Literally and figuratively, he takes up too much space, and there is no room for her! But if she backs off, he loses out too, as he will not have the opportunity to receive input or valuable feedback from her. I suggest that men monitor themselves more closely to note how others (especially women) respond to their gestures and that women don’t acquiesce to dominant gestures and maintain an assertive position
Should a woman act or become submissive because a man uses power gestures? Does he cue her to be acquiescent with his expansive, powerful, dominating behaviors? Also, consider the size of men’s hands, which are usually much larger than women’s. These might be frightening to some women.
What’s a woman to do under these circumstances? First, she must pay attention to her reactions when she encounters large male gestures. She should ask herself, “Do I feel overwhelmed by them?” She must also remember that she has choices. She should consider the context and short and long term goals of her response. It’s important to be aware of becoming “reactive” to a man’s power gestures, and I would advise not to respond in kind by acquiescing or by becoming “big” herself. However, if a man gets steamed up in public (in front or around other people), it may be more useful for a woman to stay calm. Later she might confront him in private where his loss of face would be minimized. There, she could explain the impact his gestures had on her.
Finally, a woman does not have to react by also using big gestures, and she also does not need to grow small and submit. She can simply hold her ground and send the verbal and nonverbal message: “You may be using big gestures, but I am not going to be intimated or back down from my position.” It’s best to be neither aggressive nor submissive. Just assertive.