How Did Finger-Tenting Become a Symbol of Evil?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 24 2014 3:27 PM

A Brief History of Evil Finger-Tenting

Mr Burns, notorious finger-tenter.
How did finger-tenting become a symbol of evil?

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The Muppet makers had a dilemma. They’d already decided to base their new film, Muppets Most Wanted, around Constantine, an evil frog who looks so similar to Kermit that he is able to fool Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and all their felt friends. Indeed, Constantine is built from the same frame, and has the same coloring as Kermit. But the filmmakers wanted to imbue Constantine with certain un-Kermit-like characteristics, in the name of character development and in an attempt to help viewers tell the frogs apart. Constantine has a mole, a slightly different bib than Kermit, and a Russian accent. He also employs a hand gesture that has become a universally recognized signifier of malevolence. Constantine is a finger tenter.

Mike Pesca Mike Pesca

Mike Pesca is the host of the Slate daily podcast The Gist. He also contributes reports and commentary to NPR.

Finger-tenting, or steepling, as it usually called in psychology, is perhaps best known today thanks to Montgomery Burns, the cruel nuclear power magnate on The Simpsons.  There are several Simpsons episodes in which a character makes explicit mention of the finger-tenting that accompanies Mr. Burns signature utterance, a highly sibilant “excellent.” Gloria, a policewoman Mr. Burns pursued in a Season 13 episode, remarked “You’re a nice guy, Monty. You’re always laughing and tenting your fingers. I like that.” To which Mr. Burns replied, as he tented his fingers, “Excellent.” In Season 25, Lisa, after befriending a Republican, is horrified to find her own fingers arranging themselves in a tent. “What am I doing?” she cries. “Untent! Untent!”

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Harry Shearer, who voices Mr. Burns, has said he based the character in part on the actor Lionel Barrymore. The best-known baddie Barrymore ever played, Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life was a finger tenter. In the scene in which he tries to buy off George Bailey, Barrymore lights Jimmy Stewart’s cigar and then proceeds to engage in some archetypical finger-tenting.

But perhaps the bad guys most steeped in steepling are Bond villains. Ernst Blofeld was always stroking that damn cat, but subsequent 007 foils have been fond of pitching tents, usually when divulging a dastardly plan. The moment that Bond meets Hugo Drax in Moonraker gives rise to a gravity-defying steeple or two.

Steepling at the cinema almost always signifies evil, but there is little evidence that the gesture connotes malevolence in real life. Rather, if the gesture signals anything, it’s confidence. Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent, has called finger-steepling “probably the most powerful display of confidence that we possess.”

If finger-steepling connoted evil confidence, you’d think Navarro would have mentioned it in the manual he co-authored with John R. Schafer Advanced Interviewing Techniques: Proven Strategies for Law Enforcement, Military, and Security Personnel. But the manual is mum on the topic, other than a nod at the cinematic convention.

Videos of real-life steeplers usually depict impassioned smart people, not henchmen-hiring megalomaniacs. In The Definitive Book of Body Language authors Barbara and Allan Pease contend, pace Navarro, that steeplers are exhibiting self-assuredness, illustrating this point with pictures of Gerry Adams and Jacques Chirac steepling. The benign nature of the non-cinematic steeple is underscored by the book’s backcover, which depicts author Allan Pease in a steeple that would shame Sir Christopher Wren

Pease has advised Vladamir Putin, a noted steepler. As a former KGB big shot and current international law flouter, Putin would seem to know his way around a nefarious plot. But Pease chalks the Russian President’s manner up to, you guessed it, confidence, not wickedness.

Finger-tenting is thus the mustache-twirling of our time. It’s a piece of pantomime, largely untethered from the actual practice of real life; surely there are evil-doers who tent, but not all tenters are evil-doers. So forgive Fozzie if he fails to recognize Constantine as an ill-willed interloper based on his finger arrangement—it’s not an actual social cue, and really, how much observational power do we expect from an ear-wiggling vaudevillian bear?

Mike Pesca is the host of the Slate daily podcast The Gist. He also contributes reports and commentary to NPR.

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