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I am on the autism spectrum and I tend to point at things, including people.

The other day, I was talking with a coworker about some tasks I needed them to do and, while I was talking, I was also pointing at them (it was an unconscious way of emphasizing the "you" part).

Upon seeing that, my manager told me to "not point at people" (because it was "rude") even though my coworker didn't seem to be annoyed by it.

So, why is it that society finds it rude to point at people? What's the harm in doing that?

Another situation is when someone is far away and surrounded by multiple people. In those instances, I find it really useful to be able to point in order to tell someone else "here is the person we are looking for/talking about". (the person I am pointing may or may not be able to hear what I am saying.)

However, doing this is also frowned upon by society. Why is that?

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Pointing your finger at someone is seen as either an adversarial gesture or threatening one. FWIW: in some Asian cultures, it's insulting, as you only point your finger at an animal.

About the adversarial/threatening gesture: the finger, as shown straight, stiff, pointed towards a person (not an object), is perceived as the symbol of a weapon (knife, lance, gun...). You then become the target. Nowadays, it's more evasive, and includes : accusing, shaming, hating, preaching, patronizing... and so on (the meaning will also depend on the tone you use). Even the iconic painting of Uncle Sam saying "I want YOU (for US Army)" is aggressive. But it was meant to be, challenging, striking the reader.

As a kid, you point your finger to show what you want, then to touch a thing and discover things. Later, you keep the attitude to draw attention. But you shouldn't. Keeping the gesture is seen as immature, and aggressive (-> I want to touch you).

As an adult, it's often seen as a very impolite way to interact, as pretty much all aspects of pointing your finger at someone are offensive. It's taught from early ages, and accepted as such in the language (ie: definition from Cambridge dict. def. #1 Cambridge dict. def. #2 or Merriam-Webster)

LINKS: 1. why-we-point-with-a-finger 2. The origin of pointing - Science Mag 3. Pointing (important points in the part about #Development 4.


As you mention being on the spectrum, it might be worth reading this (in French -> TAG France 1. why you shouldn't point your finger 2. origin of pointing your finger 3. pointing your finger : the real meaning 4. politics and finger-pointing)

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    "Pointing your finger at someone is seen as either an adversarial gesture or threatening one." I think it can also be a complementary or encouraging one, depending on context, especially if it's the "finger guns" gesture from the hip with both hands. A sort of "go get 'em, sport" gesture. – nick012000 Sep 3 at 2:18
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    @nick012000 that might be quite a localised cultural reference. I have literally never seen that happen. – Jontia Sep 3 at 8:09
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    To further explanation about weapon image : when raised at face level and gesturing a fishing like gesture, it evocates punishment with a rod toward slaves. The evocation of power in the stick remains today, which is the reason many tv show journalists hold a pencil, despite having nothing to write. The symbols of pointing and power confound and could explain why index pointing can be considered authoritative and rude by some. – Arthur Hv Sep 3 at 12:52
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    An additional symbolism of pointing your finger is the implication that you are higher in the hierarchy than the person you are pointing at. There's an implication that you have the right to issue orders to the person being pointed out. – DaveG Sep 3 at 17:43
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    @Jontia Here are some stock images depicting the pose: stock.adobe.com/au/… shutterstock.com/image-photo/… – nick012000 Sep 4 at 4:43
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(Moving my comment to a full-fledged answer)

As well as designating someone/thing, a pointed finger may also be an accusatory gesture. Without any context, the person being pointed at (or people witnessing you pointing at people) might believe you’re accusing instead of designating, and being accused is widely felt as defaming (however justified or not. The "Il n’y a pas de fumée sans feu" effect is in full force here).

However, it’s dependant on each person’s sensibility, experience, upbringing, etc. For instance, your coworker didn’t mind the pointing, while your manager did.

It is therefore more prudent/socially acceptable to refrain from pointing unless you’re certain that people around won’t take it as accusatory .

Please note that there are different ways to point at people/things, and they do not convey the same meaning :

  • Pointing straight at someone with a straightened index, closed fingers, and horizontal, straightened arm (from the shoulder) is the most accusatory version of pointing, especially at someone’s face.
  • On the contrary, an open hand, facing up, with bent elbow, gesturing towards someone’s torso is much less accusatory and much more designating (it has a "For instance, this person/thing…" meaning).

Also, pointing at inanimate objects is usually fine. They don’t have feelings that can be hurt by being (falsely) accused. :-)

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  • It can also be considered crude, in that you can't be bothered to name the thing at which you point. – Pureferret Sep 3 at 12:40
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    @breversa I usually hear three, which makes more sense. – J.G. Sep 3 at 16:08
  • Mmm. In fact, the accusatory nature is baked into the English language, in expressions such as ‘to point the finger at someone’ (meaning to accuse or blame). – gidds Sep 5 at 16:00
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It's just a superstition, nothing more. You shouldn't think too much about it.

While trying to "explain" superstitions may be interesting from an ethno/anthropographic point of view, trying to rationalize them is silly and counterproductive -- because you may miss the whole point: when people (pretend to) take issue with someone else's innocent quirks, or try to enforce petty irrational "norms" of behaviour, it's in order to assert their power and put the inferior to their places.

It's up to you how to best react to it; asserting your "aspie privilege" in order to just evade it (rather than embrace your subservience, or become belligerent) doesn't sound like a bad idea after all ;-)

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    What do you mean "a superstition"? I never heard of that before. What do the superstition say will happen if we point finger? – Ael Sep 3 at 7:36
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    @Ael : some say that witches used to do that towards people in order to summon (spell?) "bad stuff" (don't know the word in English) – OldPadawan Sep 3 at 9:05
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    @OldPadawan Thanks for the explanation. And I think the word you are looking for is "curse" – Ael Sep 3 at 9:10
  • @Ael: curse may be too strong of a word. "Bad omen" could be closer (in the sense that you will bring "bad stuff" (to take the expression again), not necessarily evil. It could be just "bringing bad luck for a moment") – WoJ Sep 3 at 12:16
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    @Ael - Not my answer, but I interpreted "a superstition" to mean that, although it's common to teach children that "it's not polite to point", nobody in the real world seems to be bothered by it aside from a few who wish to simply enforce the rules for their own sake, much like the grammar superstitions of "don't split infinitives" or "don't end sentences with prepositions". Growing up in the US, then emigrating to Sweden, I can't recall a single person ever taking offense at being pointed at, unless it was in a deliberately threatening manner and in conjunction with other signs of aggression. – Dave Sherohman Sep 4 at 9:03
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However, [pointing your finger at someone to identify them] is also frowned upon by society. Why is that?

I am French (you tagged france) and pointing at someone to identify that person is not impolite here. It is typical.

French tend to use their hands a lot and pointing at someone (or at a direction) instead of identifying it verbally (what they look like, where they are situated, ...) is common and actually appreciated.

It is different and more of an issue when you are around a table and point to someone. That would be perceived as aggressive.

If I was to give an advice it would be

  • you can point when identifying someone that is away, as a way to show them to someone they do not know
  • you should not point to someone everyone knows (you and others you discuss with) that is with you in the same group

As of exactly why it is socially not acceptable - other answers covered that part.

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  • I’m french too, and disagree that pointing at people is not impolite. As I remarked in my answer, it seems to be person-dependent. – breversa Sep 3 at 12:27
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    @breversa it surely is, also context dependent. This said I have never seen a problem with someone telling "vous devez contacter le monsieur là-bas", and having that person point directly to the monsieur. This is the case where I do not know him, and pointing is faster and easier. It would be rude in a close circle where everyone knows everyone. Even around a table, I can imagine someone telling "donc voilà Pierre, Paul, Marie, Jacques, Maxime, ...", pointing at each of them when presenting who is who. Context is everything. – WoJ Sep 3 at 12:34
  • @WoJ : to present someone, I'd rather see a slow gesture, with a small move of the wrist/elbow, open hand, palm up (a somehow universal gesture of peace, as you show your hand not holding a weapon). Once again, non-aggressive non-verbal communication. – OldPadawan Sep 3 at 13:47
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    I wonder if the French (non-adversarial) legal system results in the accusative nature of finger-pointing being less impolite – mcalex Sep 4 at 9:33
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Pointing at people is a problem in some circumstances but by no means always. Talking with a coworker about tasks is right on the cusp.

Like laughing, pointing "at" people is often bad but it doesn't have to be. There's no direct pointing equivalent to laughing "with" people but "to" might serve.

If you're in any kind of charge of a group… taking drinks orders at the bar, meals for a party in a restaurant or yes, assigning tasks to co-workers or vice versa it's not only acceptable - it's almost expected that you will point at/to people in turn.

Then while it might be no fun for them, it's in no way rude for a teacher or foreman, crowd-marshal, police officer or stage-hypnotist to single people out by pointing.

Pointing at/to a co-worker about tasks that need doing can't be a problem in itself, even though the attitude might be a real problem.

As described, your manager seems to have fixing something that wasn't broken.

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In Ireland this is also not considered rude unless your infringing on the persons personal space or pointing in an aggressive manner (sharp movement, other signs of outward aggression).

I've never encountered anyone who found pointing rude, and I work with folks from across the world.

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    In the Netherlands I think most of us are taught as children not to point at people. On the other hand, I don't believe someone from the Netherlands will really feel seriously offended when pointed at. – Draakhond Sep 3 at 12:42
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why is it that society finds it rude to point at people? What's the harm in doing that?

There have been many useful answers. My answer may not be entirely new but I shall try to introduce new factors.

Culture

Gestures are generally culture-dependent. For example showing the soles of your feet/shoes is very disrespectful to some cultures and not to others. I discovered this when I had a girlfriend of a different culture to mine. I just had to learn this fact. It did not seem necessary to enquire why. I made sure I did not show the soles of my feet to her or her family. (for example by putting my feet up on a footstool)

Britain

In Britain, and I suspect many other English-speaking countries, pointing is used mainly to indicate inanimate objects. If I point at a person, there is some implication that I think of them as an object rather than a human-being with thoughts and emotions.

Note that there can be more subtle differences. For example, at a party or meeting, it is impolite to point. However if you saw an amazing street-performer, say a juggler or acrobat, then it is acceptable to point to direct a companion's direction of gaze. It is however understood that you are pointing to the activity (throwing juggling balls) rather than at the person. In practice it is difficult to see the difference.

If you are speaking to an individual, then the fact you address them as "you" is enough for them to know that you are speaking to them and not someone else. Therefore pointing is considered unnecessary as well as impolite.

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Most of the answers given already concentrate on the first part of your question, why it can be considered rude to point to people you are talking to. I think most of them are excellent answers, although I don't think the sentiments expressed in those answers are held universally.

Because of this I will concentrate on the second part of your question, why it is considered rude to point to people you are talking about (at a party/social setting). This is because it clearly gives away to everyone present that you are talking about them. Which in turn makes everyone curious what kind of juicy gossip you have about them. This is just not done. There is nothing wrong with gossiping about other people, however gossiping about someone should NEVER be done in front of the person you are gossiping about. Even the appearance of doing so is very impolite.

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What's the harm... ?

Imagine that you see some people in the distance and somehow you know they are talking about you, but you can't hear what they are saying. I think most people will feel uncomfortable with that. You would want to know what they are discussing. If someone is pointing at you, that suggests that you are the subject of something the pointer is planning to do or that you are the subject of conversation. If you don't know what it is about, this can be annoying. So the fact that the one who is being pointed at does not know why he or she is being pointed at is the main reason it is impolite. At least that is how I have always interpreted it.

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