A while ago I was chatting to a bloke from the French MoD (yes, one of those) and he asked me whether I considered myself to be intelligent.
‘I’m plausible,’ I replied, smugly.
And that’s a large part of the reason I love this Tumblr about the gestures that people use when they want to look clever so much. I’ve used every single one of these ‘Look at me being intellectual’ gestures when speaking in public. Every last one. I am a shallow, manipulative cockbag.
I suspect that their ultimate origin comes from the French “intellectuels médiatiques“, for whom it is almost obligatory to flail around like a souk trader if you wish to have any credibility at all. Thanks to TEDx and various related enterprises, these gestures have become a global currency when it comes to conveying a sense of passion and belief in one’s topic. It’s all bollocks of course, some of the brainiest people are terrible speakers (Nassim Taleb, particularly, looks and acts as though he wandered into his sitting room and found it full of people expecting him to give a speech). Moreover, we are all fully aware of the fact on an intellectual level. In general, however, our hearts overrule our heads, and the I-am-an-intellectual gestures work like a charm. Otherwise no one would do them.
For politicians, of course, the opposite is true: you need to restrict your hand-gestures, or people begin to suspect that you’re trying to sell them something. Spin doctors and PR consultancies actually train them to do this, like dressage horses (but less aesthetically pleasing).
The only two that are fully condoned are, in the words of everyone who’s ever made a living adding silly captions to these things:
(You were expecting Vladimir Putin sitting with his legs wide apart, weren’t you? And, while we’re on the subject: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE STOP DOING THAT.)
… Because they convey an impression of solid and earnest sincerity.
Some pols are so successful at doing nothing with their hands that it becomes a career-defining feature:
Angela Merkel has actually admitted that the famous hand gesture came about just to give her something non-distracting to do with her arms while on official business.
But this doesn’t mean that paying fanatically detailed attention to every micro-gesture is the sine qua non of political success.
Boris Johnson, for example, has based his whole career on letting it all hang out:
And it works for him, because underneath it all he’s smart and ruthless enough to pull it off. If a less gifted or self-possessed politician tried it, the journalists would be on him like feeding time at the piranha pond. Boris, on the other hand, actually manages to use his own eccentricities to gain far more latitude for himself than anyone else enjoys. As various people have pointed out, a string of affairs and illegitimate children and agreeing to have people beaten up would finish anyone else’s career, but Boris can get past it with five minutes bluster and a sheepish smirk because that is what he’s good at. And, more importantly, it’s believable. He clearly doesn’t feel that shagging his way through North London is a big deal, and he’s so sure of himself that he manages to convince the audience too.
Vladimir Putin does the opposite thing, oddly enough, but to the same effect. Rather than going out of his way to look like a politician, he behaves exactly like what he is: an ex-KGB goon. And – as with Boris Johnson – the approach is more effective than the identikit borrowed-from-Tony-Blair politician’s standard issue persona would be.
Take this example (largely because the comic timing of the last line never fails to have me in stitches):
He’s not using any of the little tricks that a bog-standard grifter like me would deploy to focus attention on themselves (if anything, it looks like he’s the one who’s been summoned for a good bollocking, rather than the other way round), and because of that he’s actually more successful in doing so. We all now know that this is someone so scary that he doesn’t even have to make an effort.
Of course, if you want to try this then you need to have the force of character to back it up. Ed Miliband couldn’t decide tomorrow ‘Well, the vague OE schtick works for Boris, so from now on I’m going to do it.’ People might not necessarily pick up on the manipulative undertones of certain gestures, but they can always spot a fake personality: