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Making a spectacle of yourself

January 24, 2019

I have recently been noticing a new gesture, or posture, adopted by people for posed photographs. Maybe it’s not new, maybe I have only just become aware of it; because the very first time I was conscious of seeing it, I felt there was something familiar about it. The pose consists in touching or holding the right-hand side of the frame of one’s glasses while looking straight out of the photograph at the viewer. Obviously only glasses-wearers can do it; and so far I have only ever seen men doing it. Recent examples include Sathnam Sanghera in the byline photo for his Times column; Chris Evans in the ad for his new radio show on Virgin; and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s picture in some balls-aching story about Brexit in the Independent.

What does the gesture signify? Such a gesture would not be done haphazardly when one knew one was being photographed; it must signify something. Yet it is hard to put one’s finger on it exactly. I do know it conveys a message. I feel it conveys a message. I just can’t quite pin it down. Let me try. First, it suggests a certain informality and humanness: ‘Look, I’m normal, I make these little movements, I adjust my glasses just like you do.’ Then again, it seems to imply a certain intelligence and alertness, as though the subject was adjusting his specs to scrutinise something more keenly; and the gesture of course draws attention to the glasses, which have long been a metonym for braininess. And something about the directness of the movement, combined with the gazing straight ahead out of the photo, also suggests confidence and authority, even in the Evans example where he is grinning a great big goofy grin.

I know this post isn’t about the English language as such, but it is about body language, so I think it is within my remit. In fact research by Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA finds that only 7% of verbal communication which involves feelings and attitudes is to do with the actual words spoken: the rest is tone of voice, facial expression – and body language.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Could just be that their glasses have slipped!

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Or they were slightly more interesting pictures than plain portraits.
    People often use their glasses as props – wasn’t it Tom Sawyers’ aunt who looked over and under her glasses but never through them?

  3. Craig permalink

    Hi Brandon. I had a headmaster at school who did something similiar. If he was addressing us about something or other, just before he was about to make his final point he would reach up for his glasses as you describe but remove them fully. He would then kind of punctuate what he was saying with them or point at us with them if that makes sense? It was as if to say, I’m being serious now, so serious I want to look at you directly. Maybe the gesture means something like that?

  4. Mark Brafield permalink

    Another very interesting post Brandon. I will look out for this one, and may even try it myself.

    It was Professor Branestawm, one of my favourite childhood characters, who had a pair of glasses which he used only for looking over the top of. And when I was training as a judge at judge school (such a thing exists), we had a seminar on how to handle difficult litigants appearing in front of you. The tutor suggested taking off your glasses and putting them on the desk, as a sign of exasperation and authority. This is all very well, but I do not wear glasses (or, more precisely, I do not wear glasses for reading as I am slightly short-sighted). I did seriously think about buying a pair of plain glass spectacles simply to make me look more authoritative (as a friend of mine did for power meetings in the City).

    On the subject of poses, I have always enjoyed spotting the women’s film-star pose where you place one leg in front of the other or, better still, stand sideways to the camera and look over your shoulder. In fact, someone had this on Room 101 recently as one of their pet hates. The idea of putting one leg in front of the other is simply to make your profile look slimmer. I first noticed this on the classic 1990s ITV show ‘Gladiators’. The women gladiators, normally called ‘Amazon’ or ‘Flame’, would adopt this pose to the camera, having clearly been told what to do, and it made them look lean and mean. However, I always felt sorry for the women contestants (or ‘contenders’ as they were called) who were not let in on this trick. They stood square on to the camera and always looked heavy and dumpy by comparison.

  5. Simon Carter permalink

    Judges often seem to, or used to, favour half frame glasses which are designed for looking over. Edna Everage described her glasses as “face furniture”.

    • Hi Mark and Simon. This discussion reminds me of a line from a PG Wodehouse story, said by Bertie Wooster (I quote from memory): “And the next thing you know, there you are standing in the dock with the magistrate looking at you over his bifocals.”

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