Is It Always Rude to Point at Other People?

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
Feb. 19 2014 2:46 PM

Point of Etiquette

A gentleman’s guide to digital communication.

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Letters may be edited.)

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

Is it appropriate to point at other people? I was brought up to believe that a polite person only pointed at things and animals and that, barring exceptions (emergencies, pointing at a great distance, etc.), one should refrain from this gesture. I have had many conversations with co-workers and friends, and the consensus seems to be mixed. It bothers me when people point at me, and I teach my children not to do it, but I’m afraid I run the risk of sounding like some antiquated stick in the mud.

Thank you for your note. Is that a pointed question in its pocket?

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It tickles me that a yahoo asking questions of Yahoo Answers has phrased a similar query as “Is it still not polite to point?”—as if the injunction contra punctum were a bit of fuddy-duddy business destined to fade in the 21st century, as the ashes of civilization cool and we stroke forward into an anarchic, decorum-free future.

It is not polite to point. For confirmation of this truth, turn to any decent reference book on language, where you will find a usage example along the lines of “You mustn’t point at people like that.” This rule dates to the primitive days when the pointing finger was considered to administer a hex—and, in its conspicuity, to risk attracting the attention of a stranger who might reply with an evil eye. In more recent centuries, we find an expert on medical etiquette tangentially stressing the importance of acting with integrity at the ballot box by quoting the Moor of Venice. ☛

[H]e who goes and votes in violation of his conscience is such a monster of iniquity, branded so imperishably with the marks of infamy and disgrace, as ought forever to exclude him from the pale of civilized life and render him
        “A fixed figure for the hand of scorn,
        To point her slow unmoving finger at.”

To deepen your understanding of pointing as a “non-verbal stigmatization,” simply look to the rhetoric of reporting on current events. When the gridlock on Capitol Hill is greater than usual, “[f]inger-pointing on stalled bills intensifies.” After Ukrainian officials blamed protesters for their own deaths, “[o]pposition leaders pointed the finger back.” How did we identify lingering disharmony between NeNe and Kenya on the Real Housewives of Atlanta? “Everybody was pointing fingers at everyone else.”

The indicative gesture assigns blame; therefore, providing a No. 1 reason not to point, I will poke a digit toward the Golden Rule and single out the fact that it is unpleasant to be pointed at. Further, I will suppose that within and behind and beyond this unpleasantness is a fundamental existential terror. Raymond Tallis crisply defines the dynamic in a book titled Michelangelo’s Finger.

Why is it so rude to point at someone, even if the action is not meant to be cruel or demeaning, is not accompanied by laughter, even when the pointing finger is not guiding jeers to their target, allocating blame, picking us out of a reluctant crowd for some unpleasant, dangerous, or humiliating task? It is because the pointing finger prods at a vulnerability we all share. We are skewered on the attention of another person and any others to whom the pointing is also addressed. ... Pointing, in virtue of co-opting other consciousnesses, intensifies the sense we all have at times of being known and yet not-known—of being ‘mis-known’, of helpless exposure to uncomprehending eyes that imagine they comprehend us.

It has been argued that the index finger is what makes us, in some meaningful sense, human. To grasp this point, look into a 2003 book titled Pointing: Where Language, Culture, and Cognition Meet or check out a 2013 Slate piece on early-childhood development, which discusses psychological studies documenting “that infants, beginning at around 1 year of age, point and react to other people pointing in remarkably sophisticated ways.” ☛

Pointing to share an opinion builds on the foundation of what psychologists call joint attention—when two people pay attention to the same thing (and are aware that they’re both paying attention to that thing). Joint attention arises out of what Michael Tomasello, who heads the Developmental and Comparative Psychology Department at Max Planck, has called the nine-month revolution. Out of it grows the basis of pretty much all human achievement: the motivation and the ability to work together toward shared goals. (Apes never get there: They have the attention part but not the jointness.)

The ability to point meaningfully is a milestone of our progress toward becoming big boys and girls; the ability to restrain ourselves from pointing makes us gentlemen and ladies. For this reason, children must be taught that pointing is permissible only in a narrow set of circumstances, such as when wagging a finger at a child because he pointed.

What’s the workaround, when you want to draw an interlocutor’s attention to a third person? Well, in Guinea-Bissau, they point with the tongue, a gesture that opens up a whole ’nother can of worms. It would be better to deploy the Clinton Thumb (etiquette gives the pollex a big thumbs up) or to employ the open palm of an eager tour guide or to unleash a sotto voce utterance, I say, at the risk of you-know-whatting out the obvious.

At what point in a relationship do I say that I have a child from another relationship?

Thank you for your question.

Early. Really early. Like, before the relationship has developed into a thing worthy of identification as such. For instance, if the centerpiece of your first date is a formal Italian dinner, you ought to disclose the brat’s existence during the antipasto course. Try this segue: “Is it just me or is this the best burrata ever? I’m willing to concede that it is just me; my palate’s been ruined by string cheese and Kraft singles.”

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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