Believe it or not, President Obama and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer don’t like each other very much—or so their acrimonious meeting yesterday would suggest. When the president landed in Phoenix for a post-State of the Union event, he was confronted by Brewer on the airport tarmac. Brewer brought up her recent book, Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media, and Cynical Politicos to Secure the Border (foreword by Sarah Palin!), in which she criticizes Obama and accuses him of being “patronizing” during an Oval Office meeting. Obama evidently bristled at that characterization, and the exchange produced a great photo that’s now gone viral. Brewer, leaning in towards the president, appears to be shouting; Obama looks irritated, as if he’s trying to defuse the encounter. But the most notable element of the picture is Brewer’s index finger, pointed right in the president’s face. What is the communicative significance of pointing?
It turns out that scholars are actually unsure of the origins of the pointing gesture. It’s a remarkably diverse movement: Think, for instance, of someone pointing at a dog. The gesture can be declarative (that is a dog); imperative (look at the dog); or interrogative (What color is it?, where the pointing gesture indicates that “it” means a dog). In conversation, pointing not only focuses attention on a particular object, but it serves a communicative purpose—in many cases, to signal aggression. Some experts identify it as part of the “combative” stance, wherein one person leans forward and points at another to indicate active disagreement with them. A look at Brewer’s posture in that photograph seems to indicate which of those two politicians was acting aggressively—and it raises doubts about the governor’s account of just who was rude to whom in that White House meeting.