This post examines the virtues of gracefulness, poise, composure, savoir-faire and other things in that bailiwick. As with my other posts in this sequence, I’m less interested in breaking new ground and more in gathering and synthesizing whatever wisdom I could find on the subject. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is this virtue?

As with many of the virtues in this sequence, gracefulness turns out to be complex, fuzzy, and difficult to pin down when you look at it closely. But some of the features that often recur in discussions of gracefulness are these:

  • Gracefulness is aesthetically beautiful. Usually this is a beauty of motion or of activity in particular, rather than a static beauty, and a beauty of people or animals rather than of inanimate things (though the idea is sometimes used, metaphorically maybe, to describe for example a graceful arch above some cathedral window, the graceful meander of a river, or the graceful turn of phrase of some author).
  • Gracefulness can be surprisingly easy (e.g. the result of practice and skill) or it can seem that way (successfully hiding the effort). Strain, wavering, rush, stress, tension—any signs of struggle—detract from gracefulness.
  • Gracefulness seems to be at least to some extent about how you appear to others. Indeed, its purpose may be to communicate something to others.
  • There is some question about whether gracefulness is a virtue (a characteristic habit that exhibits or promotes human flourishing) or whether it is more like a happy consequence of virtues. Some authors think of gracefulness not as something to be aimed at directly, but as the outward appearance of an inner state characterized by harmony, balance, steadiness, tranquility, confidence, unconcern, emotional regulation, self-control, awareness, and other such traits. Maybe this relates to how we use the word “disgraceful” to describe exhibitions of vice.

A bit more detail on these points:

Gracefulness as beauty of motion or activity

Edmund Burke, in his examination of the “beautiful,” briefly breezed by the topic of gracefulness, saying that it “is not very different from beauty” but belongs specifically to “posture and motion.”[1] Most of the other authors I reviewed either left “posture” out of it, or considered graceful posture to be no more than a freeze-frame of graceful motion.[2]

“Posture relates to action and not to the maintenance of any given position. Acture would perhaps be a better word for it.”
From Tiffany Sankary’s Feldenkrais Illustrated: The Art of Learning (2014)

Friedrich Schiller went into more detail.[3] “Grace is a kind of movable beauty,” he wrote. “I mean a beauty which does not belong essentially to its subject, but which may be produced accidentally in it.”[4] 

He further restricted the use of the term to describing voluntary movements of people: gracefulness, to him, “serve[s] as the expression of humanity.”[5] Movement is how the mind makes itself present in the world: “the mind, taking possession of the sensuous matter subservient to it… transforms itself to a certain point into a sensuous phenomenon…”[6] One’s static (“architectonic”) beauty is largely an accident of nature, but one’s dynamic beauty (“beauty of the play”) is one’s own creation.[6] When this dynamic beauty represents one’s willed choices, it is gracefulness (when it becomes habitual, unconscious muscle memory—when “gestures pass to a state of lineament”—it becomes something more like a variety of architectonic beauty).[7] 

Gracefulness appears effortless

Many authors pointed out that graceful movement appears easy, but there was less agreement about what this indicates. Some took this at face value and suggested that gracefulness can be defined, in part, as efficient, low-energy-expenditure movement.

Others thought that successfully hiding or inhibiting indications of effort is enough, and that we are more likely to see a movement as graceful if it defies our expectations: if it is something that we expect we could only do with trembling effort or tense concentration, but that for the graceful person seems easier than falling out of bed. Practice can boost gracefulness in this way: by strengthening the muscles that perform the effort, improving the technique, and increasing skill. But some authors demote well-practiced grace, or graceful façades, to some less-than-graceful category.

Schiller, for example, thought that deliberately cultivated (“imitated” or “theatrical”) grace is to “true grace” as things like make-up, wigs, and jewelry are to “architectonic beauty.”[8] If observers notice the artifice, the pretended grace (or beauty) loses a lot of its charm and can even become repulsive. Some people display mannerisms that symbolize gracefulness or delicateness (pinky-finger extended while drinking tea, baroque turns of the wrist while gesturing) without actually being particularly graceful. These can sometimes be “campy” effete burlesques of class-bound notions of grace (which are meant more to communicate camp than grace), or they can be more-or-less sincerely-meant affectations that amount to a kind of trying-too-hard.

If a person is able to skillfully force themselves to appear graceful in defiance of their inner state, that person may become opaque to us in a way that can be disturbing. “[W]ith such a man all is dissembling, and art entirely absorbs nature.” So “[t]he true grace” … “ought always to be pure nature, that is to say, involuntary (or at least appear to be so), to be graceful. The subject even ought not to appear to know that it possesses grace.”[9]

Schiller further recommended that a person seeking gracefulness not try to force some generic image of grace onto an unwilling body, but instead work with the body to find its own individual way of expressing gracefulness. You cannot make a horse graceful by training it to be a ballerina; you have to nurture and encourage its horse-grace.[10] Similarly, you cannot stamp yourself into a graceful mold as though you were a lump of clay; you have to work with your own body and personality—not commanding it against its inclinations, but developing it so that “the reason and the senses, duty and inclination, are in harmony.”[11]

Herbert Spencer thought that true gracefulness demonstrated efficiency and economy of motion:

[G]iven a certain change of attitude to be gone through—a certain action to be achieved, then it is most gracefully achieved when achieved with the least expenditure of force. In other words, grace, as applied to motion, describes motion that is effected with an economy of muscular power; grace, as applied to animal forms, describes forms capable of this economy; grace, as applied to postures, describes postures that may be maintained with this economy; and grace, as applied to inanimate objects, describes such as exhibit certain analogies to these attitudes and forms.[12] 

To Spencer, someone who is graceful is doing something that (at least for them) is easy, and they are at ease doing it. This would seem to rule out those examples of [quasi-?] gracefulness in which someone uses extra effort to suppress signs of effort.

Anne Oliver, who ran a “finishing school” for girls and who was certainly concerned with fostering a deliberate, effortful sort of poise, nonetheless also stressed the importance of chill: “Grace encompasses a sense of calmness as well as a mental and physical center. These two factors lead to larger, freer movements, which add to grace, whereas a tense attitude causes energy to decline and movements to become very restricted, tight, and limited—with all grace lost.”[13]

Gracefulness might work most successfully when it is noticed as a kind of afterthought: you see the motion, intuit the intention behind it, nod at its efficacy, and then in the back of your mind is a sort of “and so gracefully done, too.” Caroline Goyder felt that “gravitas” (a variety of grace perhaps) works best if it is unobtrusive in this way. In a speaker with gravitas, the gravitas should assist the effectiveness of the speech, rather than the speech being designed to boost the speaker’s gravitas. Audience members should come away moved in the way the speaker hoped to move them, and impressed with the gravitas of the speaker only as a sort of subliminal residue.[14]

Gracefulness communicates

“Grace has been defined as the outward expression of the inward harmony of the soul.” ―Wiliam Hazlitt[15]

Gracefulness communicates to others about the person who exhibits it. For example, it suggests things about their health and fitness, their proficiency at the activity in question, their level of attention, their emotional state, and the amount of care they take in their appearance and actions.

Voluntary movement is a kind of “speaking,” wrote Schiller. When we make an intentional movement we usually also thereby communicate something about what our intentions are (“the substance of the will”). But further than that, because we can fulfill any particular intention with a great variety of possible movements, which of these movements we choose communicates about our disposition (“the form of the will”). “[T]he tone, [] which thus determines the mode and the manner of the movement” … “expresses a certain state of the soul”, in particular our “moral sensibility.” How a person does the things he does “bear[s] witness to his character.”[16]

A graceful action, from this perspective, is a sort of window onto the otherwise hidden inner beauty of a person’s character and mental state.

We can also reveal what is disgraceful about our characters either by behaving wholeheartedly disgracefully, which is itself ugly, or by having to force ourselves into a pantomime of grace, in which case the tension between the outer appearance and the moral sensibility is likely to surface through a lack of gracefulness. For example: It can be hard to avoiding telegraphing it when you’re doing someone a good deed begrudgingly.

This is a bit like how one’s words can be interpreted very differently depending on how they are delivered, whatever the literal content of the words is. One’s tone of voice—whether one stammers or shouts, mutters or whispers—and one’s body language may communicate more, and more reliably, than the words do.

Schiller was a fan of Kant’s moral theories, and he notices that his own theories here seem to contradict Kant in one respect. Kant seemed to believe that an act was only a moral one if it were to be done in obedience to duty but against inclination: “inclination can never be for the moral sense otherwise than a very suspicious companion, and pleasure a dangerous auxiliary for moral determinations.”[17] It is the fact that you are exerting yourself to do not what you want to do but what you realize you must that makes your decision a moral exercise. It is your intention to conform to duty, and not the act itself, that is moral: if you do the same act from a different intention (e.g. pleasure or habit) your act is morally of no account. Schiller, here, though, says that what is beautiful about gracefulness is the moral character it demonstrates, and that it demonstrates this by means of harmony between one’s inclinations and one’s actions: “the moral perfection of man cannot shine forth except from this very association of his inclination with his moral conduct.” “[T]he destiny of man is not to accomplish isolated moral acts, but to be a moral being” and so “not only is it permitted to man to accord duty with pleasure, but he ought to establish between them this accord, he ought to obey his reason with a sentiment of joy.” For this reason, Schiller counsels that we aim for this graceful harmony—that we try to establish integrity between our sensual/animal nature and our rational/dutiful morality. “It is only when [someone] gathers, so to speak, his entire humanity together, and his way of thinking in morals becomes the result of the united action of the two principles, when morality has become to him a second nature, it is then only that it is secure.”[18] When someone does this, he is enabled to “abandon[] himself with a certain security to inclination, without having to fear being led astray by her”[19] and this takes on the appearance of gracefulness: “grace is the expression of this harmony in the sensuous world.”[20]

Cicero put this more plainly: “whatever is graceful is virtuous, and whatever is virtuous is graceful.”[21] As beauty is the appearance of health and flourishing of the human body, gracefulness is the appearance of virtue and flourishing of the human character. Conceptually we can separate virtue from gracefulness, he says, but in the real world they always show up together.

Ernest Hemingway, when he defined “guts” as “grace under pressure,” was following this tradition of describing a virtue (courage) in terms of its graceful appearance.[22] You can see hints of this with other virtues too. Consider some of the body-language metaphors we use for “honesty”—an honest person is “straightforward” and “forthright”, not “underhanded” or “two-faced” or “shifty-eyed”, “talking out of both sides of her mouth”; she “looks you in the eye” and doesn’t “beat around the bush” but tells it to you “straight”. There are hints here that we consider efficient motion and unity of appearance to be part of the presentation of honesty, too.

How gracefulness manifests

Gracefulness tends to give the impression of (and one may feel most graceful when one also feels) emotional regulation, self-control, present-moment awareness, mind/body harmony, and confidence. It exhibits itself through body language, bearing, and posture (including a relaxed facial expression); through calm, efficient movement; through a steady voice; through maintaining focus and remaining on-task; and through apparent effortlessness. It can include “a kind of stubborn cheerfulness”[23] that is not easily disturbed.

Signs of stress (preoccupation with worrying thoughts, tenseness, rapid breathing, shuddering, stammering) disturb gracefulness. When you are graceful, you broadcast that you are unstressed: “in your element”—not “like a fish out of water” but in command of your situation.

More specifically:

Gracefulness is expressed by means of a difficult-to-define efficiency, gentleness, smoothness, continuity, and flowingness

Edmund Burke wrote that “…to be graceful, it is requisite that there be no appearance of difficulty; there is required a small inflection of the body; and a composure of the parts in such a manner, as not to encumber each other, not to appear divided by sharp and sudden angles. In this case, this roundness, this delicacy of attitude and motion, it is that all the magic of grace consists, and what is called its je ne sais quoi…”[24] Several authors I reviewed pulled out their je ne sais quois when describing the nitty-gritty of what gracefulness consists of. It is hard to pin down in a consistent way.

For example, it can be tempting to say that gracefulness is efficiency of motion: expending the least effort to do what you intend. But it takes much less effort to reach your hand out and drop your fork noisily from some distance above the table than it does to precisely set your fork down quietly just upon the table. The latter takes attention and fine motor control—extraneous effort—but seems more graceful.

Graceful motion may appear effortless, but this often means it’s “easy on the eyes” more than that it is easy to produce. This is true for other varieties of gracefulness, too. When we say that someone writes gracefully, what we usually mean is that what they write reads gracefully, not that they seemed to have produced it effortlessly.

Graceful writing does however illustrate some of the themes of gracefulness in general. At the beginning of a graceful sentence, the reader is quick to understand the model she is to assemble, and then the pieces of this model arrive in a sensible order, word by word, so the reader can just snap them into place, until at the end of the sentence the whole idea is revealed. Compare the following two sentences—one from the translation of Schiller’s work on gracefulness, the other from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

SchillerJoyce
At all events, if it is accidental with regard to the object, that the understanding associates, at the representation of this object, one of its own ideas with it, it is not the less necessary for the subject which represents it to attach to such a representation such an idea.[25]Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.[26]

In the Schiller example, the reader is forced to balance teetering clauses of unknowable relevance in memory in the hopes of later gaining some clue as to how they might fit together. What is this “it” that is “accidental with regard to the object”? Oh it’s “that the understanding associates”—associates what? Hold that thought… and so forth. Reading a sentence like this is like trying to carry too many bags of groceries up the stairs in one trip. In the Joyce example, on the other hand, you start with a simple idea and just add to it piece by piece until the whole, more complex thing is in your mind’s eye.

Herbert Spencer wrote that “a leading element of grace is continuity, flowingness,” as opposed to zig-zags and sharp turns, discontinuities and abruptness.[27] Consider how you might reach out for a cup. You need to do a few things: move your arm so that your hand is in the right location, rotate your wrist so that your hand is in the appropriate alignment, and open your hand to the right aperture to fit to the contours of the cup. Imagine what it would look like to do these steps in sequence, one at a time. Now imagine what it would look like to do each of these steps in parallel, but each step as quickly as you would do the step if you were doing it in isolation from the others. To flip the wrist and open the hand can be done in the blink of an eye, but reaching the hand out to the cup might take a little longer: as a result you reach for the cup with your hand already in a sort of weird rictus. Each of those options results in a movement that looks grotesquely robotic. Now imagine doing those steps in parallel, but slowing down the opening of the hand and the turning of the wrist so that those motions take the same amount of time as it takes to extend your arm. All three of your motions commence and conclude at the same time. By artificially slowing the hand and wrist movements to fit into the time needed to complete the arm movement, the entire movement takes on a gracefulness that was lacking in the other options.

Why does this seem more graceful even though it is no more efficient or effective? It demonstrates a superfluous degree of motor control and hand/eye coordination. I wonder if it amounts to a sort of fitness signal and that is why we find it beautiful.

“The body moves, therefore, smoothly, and describes clear curves or lines.”
From Tiffany Sankary’s Feldenkrais Illustrated: The Art of Learning (2014)

Gracefulness means being flexible, adaptable, resilient in the face of change

One way gracefulness manifests is in how people adjust to change, setbacks, or surprises without superfluous demonstrations of shock or frustration. To be “caught flat-footed” or “thrown off-balance” suggests that one’s confidence is fragile and poorly-defended, while to “roll with the punches” means to be able to reestablish this confidence rapidly after setbacks (or mistakes).

The best sort of poise is not a precarious, difficult-to-reach state. Rather, it is a stable equilibrium that you return to when disturbed.[28]

Sports psychologist Josephine Perry says she puts a lot of effort into getting athletes out of a “tough guy, special forces, battle ready” mindset that over-relies on tenaciousness and persistence, determination and control, and tries instead to teach the skills of flexibility so as to make the athletes’ skills more resilient in the face of challenges. She says she finds acceptance and commitment therapy (a variety of cognitive behavioral therapy) valuable for this purpose.[29]

Gracefulness can be unobtrusive, harmonious leadership and social initiative

“A leader is best when people barely know that he exists… When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’ ” ―Tao Te Ching

Someone who knows how to unobtrusively steer conversations and other social interactions in harmonious ways can exercise this kind of graceful variety of leadership.

Anne Oliver gave some examples: “The grace to cover another’s conversational blunder or embarrassment and to provide spoken relief in situations that are themselves sad, anxious, or difficult is a marvelous and rare talent. When cultivated, it can make you a welcome addition to any group.”[30]

Gracefulness in conversation includes interpreting the other person charitably and in a way that best promotes positive interaction, while at the same time not allowing yourself to be steered against your judgment. One of the delights of reading certain books in the “novel of manners” genre is in observing how certain particularly graceful characters navigate difficult conversations: balancing fine distinctions of social etiquette, virtues like charitableness and tolerance, and whatever conundrums the plot has enmeshed them in, while interacting with conversation partners who may be trying to bully, manipulate, or embarrass them, or to get them to betray confidences.[31]

Speech, like writing, can also be more or less graceful in ways that have less to do with the social context. Speech that is direct and to the point is more graceful than speech that rambles and digresses. Speech delivered in “a deep, resonant voice, speaking concisely without fillers” has more gravitas.[32]

Word choices that are appropriate to the audience and occasion (e.g. formal vs. informal, idiomatic vs. standard), vocal register, grammatical correctness, and other such rhetorical factors can all contribute to or detract from verbal gracefulness.

Gracefulness as a general tendency and a context-specific skill

Is gracefulness something that is context-specific, displaying practice and skill at particular tasks, or is it a general trait that then reveals itself in the course of such tasks? In a sign of the times, the most graceful statement I found on this point came from Claude:

Perhaps the most compelling perspective is that baseline self-possession allows poise to manifest as a general inclination, but its fullest exemplification requires contextual mastery. Broad mindful presence provides a foundation, but subject-matter expertise and situational repetitions are required to express poise as consummate gracefulness in any given pursuit.

This seems true of conversational gracefulness.[33] You communicate command and authority differently from how you communicate connection and solidarity, for example, and it’s easy to imagine someone who is graceful at one and not the other. To learn conversational gracefulness seems to be a combination of learning some general-purpose grace-for-all-occasions, as well as developing a wide range of more specific skills and insight about when to deploy them. Gracefully pivoting between, for example, being assertive and being conciliatory, as the occasion demands, also strikes me as a skill that probably benefits from practice and attentiveness, distinct from general gracefulness or from gracefulness at either of the endpoints of the transition.

What good is it? (What bad is it?)

“To stand erect, to walk or move easily, to have the various parts of the body so perfectly adjusted that easy balance and graceful use must result is to be desired for reasons of far greater importance than the æsthetic. Such elements are of absolute importance for perfect health and the fullest economic efficiency, since the use of the body in proper poise insures the least friction with consequently the greatest amount of energy available for what may be required of the individual.” ―J.E. Goldthwait[34]

Discussion of the benefits of (and possible downsides of) gracefulness begins with (at least implicitly) the question of whether gracefulness is itself a virtue that ought to be aimed for, or whether it is the fruit of other virtues and ought not to be pursued directly.

Poise and gracefulness seem to be associated with peak performance, with smoothly-operating bodily machinery, and with purposeful and effective action, and they are attractive as well: what’s not to like? If a virtue is a characteristic habit that promotes or exhibits human flourishing, gracefulness seems to hit the mark.

But if the gracefulness is a function of something more fundamental, it might be a mistake to try to form habits of gracefulness. This is especially so because gracefulness seems to be, to a large degree, about how you appear to others. From the inside, you perform an action with skill, confidence, and mindfulness; from the outside, you appear to perform the action with gracefulness. Gracefulness is how it appears; skill, confidence, and mindfulness are how it feels. If you were to instead try to aim for gracefulness directly, you would be tempted to try to view yourself from without: something that is inherently awkward and distracting, and is likely to interfere with the confidence and mindfulness you need to be actually graceful.

Dipping into the penumbras and emanations surrounding gracefulness, you find things like aplomb, confidence, being “centered”, being “smooth”, gravitas, unflappability/imperturbability, “cool”, tranquility, nerve, efficiency, carefulness, precision, charisma, command, bearing, comportment/deportment, ḥózȟǫ́, itutu, wu wei, sprezzatura, euschêmosunê, and nonchalance.

It seems to have close ties to integrity, preparation, self control, stoicism (rolling-with-the-punches), resilience and courage (e.g. grace-under-pressure), authority, flexibility, fashion sense / decorum, emotional intelligence, dignity, eloquence/rhetoric, balance/moderation, gentleness, efficiency, solemnity, serenity/tranquility, maturity, emotional stability, simplicity, and etiquette/courtesy. Or maybe it’s that those things in particular have a graceful presentation, or that a certain gracefulness is the first clue that they’re present in someone.

Herbert Spencer connected gracefulness with empathy:

The same faculty which makes us shudder on seeing another in danger—which sometimes causes motion of our own limbs on seeing another struggle or fall, gives us a vague participation in all the muscular sensations which those around us are experiencing. When their motions are violent or awkward, we feel in a slight degree the disagreeable sensations which we should have were they our own. When they are easy, we sympathize with the pleasant sensations they imply in those exhibiting them.[35]

In relation to this virtue, vices of deficiency go by names like slovenliness, clumsiness, shrinking timidity, failure to read-the-room, buffoonery, inappropriateness, anxiety, hesitancy, insecurity, befuddlement, discombobulation, being discomposed, being disturbed, being flustered, being nonplussed, being unhinged, being uncouth, childishness, frivolity, and losing your cool. Vices of excess can include being cocky, hubris, and overconfidence, and also various descriptions of trying-too-hard to appear graceful: having affectations or mannerisms, being effete or foppish, image-consciousness, doing things in a “studied” way, playing to the gallery, putting on airs. Sometimes people are described as “controlled” or “restrained” in a negative way when it seems like they are exercising more command of themselves than the situation calls for.

Someone who seems to do everything with astonishing grace can be intimidating: they can make people around them more aware of their own awkwardnesses. By contrast, there’s a variety of casual levity, informality, (maybe even modesty?), that takes the form of a cultivated sloppiness of manner that can put people around you at ease.

The word “grace” has the potential for ambiguity and confusion, as it has been taken up in a religious context to mean something pretty far afield from gracefulness (in phrases like “state of grace” or “saying grace” or “receiving God’s grace”). “Graciousness,” too, hovers around this concept, and I’m not sure where to place it. It may just be a good alternative term for social/conversational gracefulness. For example, to receive a complement gracefully, or to take blame gracefully, or to accept an apology gracefully, are all descriptions in which “graciously” seems to perform as well or better to much the same end.

How to develop the virtue

As I mentioned above, some authors see gracefulness as something that results from the integration of other virtues into a harmonious character, not as a distinct virtue to be developed independently. But others gave advice on how to cultivate gracefulness itself.

Practice and preparation were frequently cited as keys to poise. When you are first learning some variety of motion, there is usually some trial-and-error involved, and that trial-and-error can be a little clumsy. If you get that clumsiness out of the way before you are called upon to perform that motion in the spotlight, you will do so more gracefully. And if you begin in appropriate dress, in a ready stance, and with your props close at hand, you will require less fumbling and adjustments along the way.

Social gracefulness can also benefit from practice and preparation. One gets better at small talk, introductions, greetings, thanks, and apologies, the more one has tried them out and tested their parameters. If you know, for example, who is going to be at the party, you can plan ahead with some welcome conversational gambit, or refresh your memory about possible faux pas you ought to tiptoe around.

If anxiety tends to bring out the awkward in you, there are specialized techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and cognitive restructuring that show promise in quieting the nerves. (Stubborn cases can be treated by anxiolytic drugs, or the go-to shortcut for many people: alcohol. But even aside from possible negative health effects—particularly of alcohol—and addiction potential, such drugs can interfere with the attention and motor control that aid gracefulness, and so may not be very helpful in this context.) Mindfulness meditation can also boost equanimity and improve present-moment attention as a bonus.

Finishing schools

There used to be such an institution as a “finishing school” that was meant, among other things, to teach poise, gracefulness, deportment, and the like to young women about to embark on adulthood. Today such a thing is nearly extinct. Some finishing schools, like the Institut Villa Pierrefeu have pivoted to teaching things like “executive presence” to aspiring members of the jet set who want to put their best foot forward in a multi-cultural, globalized business context.[36] Most have faded away.

Anne Oliver ran one in Atlanta called L’Ecole des Ingénues that taught girls and young women “personal beauty, visual poise, the social graces, aesthetic awareness, and a personal synthesis.”[37] She explained that “ ‘Finish’ in this connotation implies perfection, beauty, rightness in a human being (particularly in a young woman), which produce a glow akin to that emanating from expertly crafted furniture, elegant silver flatware, fine jewelry…”[38]

Oliver’s advice straddled the cultivation of inner beauty and the careful sculpting of outward display. For the former, she recommended “The Four ‘R’s’ ”: relaxation (which seemed to be a variety of mindfulness meditation), receptivity (in which you search for “your inner voice, that place within you that can suggest answers to your questions with honesty and wisdom”), reflection (“focus on something of beauty” e.g. a candle flame–possibly a variety of lite kasiṇa work?), and responsibility (“make a commitment to do something specific—something you know you can do—and commit yourself to it for a limited amount of time”).[39] For the latter, she guided students through various detailed exercises—for example a 15-step guide to walking gracefully, a 13-step guide to sitting down, and another eight steps for standing back up again.[40]

These exercises had an explicit see-yourself-from-without element. For instance, during exercises on how to “walk, pivot, sit, and climb up and down stairs with grace” she recommended that the student “[p]ractice these daily… If possible, have a friend or family member videotape you as you begin, and as you progress toward grace.”

[T]ake a few minutes to let your mind become the video camera. It is important to close your eyes and imagine your body in its newly defined posture and movement patterns. View your weak and strong points and identify them to yourself. Now, envision the way you want to stand, move, and sit. Let these new pictures register in your mind’s eye. Picture yourself with the utmost physical self-confidence. Now, open your eyes and make the picture come to life.[41]

Eventually, though, all of this multi-step, self-conscious action was to become second-nature. It is only part of the private preparation that allows for public composure: 

Graceful movement is free from tension, self-absorption, and pretension. Grace is also a state of mind—assuredness and balance—of knowing you have it all together, whether mentally in what you are about to say, or physically in your movements, or materially in your dress. For example, once you have prepared yourself to be in public, you are confident, you need not pull at your clothes, play with your jewelry, or touch your makeup or hair. As you develop grace you no longer fidget or fuss, you no longer move without direction or speak without thinking.[42]

Oliver also recommended “[p]roper exercise, improved posture, and correct body weight [as] the keys to grace” and said that “[s]ports and dance are wonderful teachers of grace. They impart a sure sense of balance, enhance flexibility, and increase muscle strength and coordination. They cause you to move with a purpose, developing movement patterns that are stored in your memory.”[41]

Mindfulness meditation

Anne Oliver’s guide for developing grace in girls can have a very polished-silver and how-to-behave-at-tea flavor to it, which made me that much more surprised when I saw her recommend what seemed like descriptions of vipassanā and (if you squint) kasiṇa meditation, in simplified forms and stripped of exotic Pāli terms.[43]

Present-moment awareness, attention to the body, deliberateness of behavior, serenity—these are all things that contribute to gracefulness and also things that varieties of meditation promise to help you with. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that there would be cross-pollination (or maybe convergent evolution) in these families of practice.

Carolyn Goyder, in her book on gravitas, quoted Paul Ekman saying that the attention on breathing that is a foundation for many meditation practices is a good way to begin making usually-subconscious and automatic motor processes more salient. “[T]hese skills transfer to other automatic processes—benefiting emotional behaviour awareness, and eventually in some people, impulse awareness.”[44] I can see how this might also be helpful for ordinary tasks (walking, sitting, standing) for which your muscle memory has settled in to a clumsy local minimum and for which you would like to recover conscious control so that you can make adjustments.

Insights from kinesiology, physical therapy, and medicine

The study of human body movement is “kinesiology” and among the things under that umbrella are methods for how people can improve their coordination.

For example, physical therapists have a variety of exercises by means of which they can help patients recover or improve their balance and other motor skills. Medical science has surgical, pharmaceutical, and other varieties of treatments for tremors, ataxia, dizziness, and other ungraceful body movements.

I mention these things only in passing because they are large topics that are well outside my area of expertise. But at least for some varieties of lack of (or loss of) gracefulness of motion, interventions of these sorts may be worth investigating.

Proprioceptive training

Proprioception is how your mind keeps track of the position and orientation of the parts of your body. If it gets off-kilter, you will be prone to ungraceful movements because your brain is starting those movements from an inaccurate baseline and is getting inaccurate feedback on how they are proceeding. There is an emerging science of proprioceptive training for improving motor function. It is used for people with injuries, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, etc., but there is some evidence that it can also be used to improve the motor performance of healthy people as well.[45]

The yips

In sport, if a player suddenly finds themselves unable to command the necessary motor coordination to, say, throw a dart accurately or sink a putt, and if this persists, they may complain of having “the yips.” There is now also a field of study meant to analyze and treat what the wonks prefer to call “sports-related dystonia”.[46] 

Preliminary research suggests that there are two varieties of yips, one caused by small physiological changes (e.g. muscle fatigue or spasms) that interfere with fine motor control, and another that is the result of the psychological stress of competition or of disappointing performance.

The Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method

The Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method are two “alternative medicine”-style practices that were designed in part to improve posture, gracefulness, and the efficiency of movement. They can sometimes have the smell of pseudoscience about them, likely because some of their more enthusiastic practitioners tried to overextend them into cure-all medical treatments. (An early edition of Alexander’s first book called his students “patients”; he later wisely changed this to “pupils.”) For my purposes, I will consider these purely as techniques for improving the gracefulness of motion, although to their developers and practitioners they are typically more than this.[47] I have only passing familiarity with these techniques, by means of Alexander’s and Feldenkrais’s books and a few brief descriptions elsewhere.

F. Matthias Alexander developed a very popular philosophy and training method, focused in part on improving posture and movement, in the first half of the 20th century. It is known as the Alexander Technique.

In thumbnail-sketch form it seems to be (in part) a method of painstakingly retraining voluntary bodily movements so as to make them more efficient. This is typically done in private or small-group lessons. The student makes salient, consciously inhibits, and then deliberately replaces the various motions (and preparatory movements or muscle-tensings) that go into a compound movement (like getting up from a chair). So for example, in such an exercise, the instructor might say “stand!” whereupon the student refuses to stand—that is, she observes and successfully inhibits her body’s attempts to follow the order in the habitual way. Having learned how to inhibit this customary set of actions, the student then begins to replace them with better ones, in a step-by-step, one-at-a-time way.

Alexander also stressed the importance of vertebral/spinal lengthening—relax the neck, let the head go forward and upward, widen and lengthen the torso (don’t arch the spine). This is also something I noticed was frequently mentioned in Anne Oliver’s book (she would repeatedly counsel her students to “Pull your string!”—by which she meant that they should imagine themselves being suspended from a string attached to the top of their heads, in a way that would lengthen their backbones appropriately). I often hear similar visualizations counseled by yoga instructors.

Moshé Feldenkrais followed in the footsteps of Alexander to develop his own technique along similar lines. He counseled a slow-paced, continual-improvement process in which his students would identify what he called “parasitic superfluous exertion” and then “gradually eliminate from one’s mode of action all superfluous movements, everything that hampers, interferes with, or opposes movement.”[48] After you have eliminated the unnecessary “parasitic” movements, you are in a better position to refine the necessary ones. You can do this in part by experimenting with different ways of performing the movement: tweak the parameters in deliberate ways and study the results. Then refine your method of performing the movement by continually selecting from these tweaks the ones that result in slight improvements.

The impression I get from this is that both Alexander and Feldenkrais believed that their pupils had gotten locked into a poorly-chosen local minimum at some point during their sensory-motor training, and that they needed to be guided back into the training phase so they could work their way out of that minimum and into a better sequence of motions. This seems intuitively sensible to me. I’m pretty clumsy, and I think part of the reason for this is that I’m tall (6′2″) and my experience growing up was attempts to calibrate my body movements to my body size, only for all of my limbs to extend by another half-inch overnight and throw everything off. I think at some point I just gave up on trying to become more coordinated and got used to making my way through the world driving-by-braille as it were. That said, I do not have any personal experience with either of these corrective techniques.

Moshé Feldenkrais The Elusive Obvious (1981) pp. 92–93, Awareness Through Movement (1990) p. 61
From Tiffany Sankary’s Feldenkrais Illustrated: The Art of Learning (2014)

These methods continue to be taught today, so if you want to experiment with them, you can. I saw hundreds of listings for teachers certified by the American Society for the Alexander Technique at their website, for example, and hundreds of “guild certified Feldenkrais practitioners” at the Feldenkrais Guild of North America website.

Dance, music, and other recreational activities

“those move easiest who have learned to dance” ―Alexander Pope[49]

Music and dance have long been connected with grace. Plato’s Socrates, for example, recommended that harmonious, beautiful music be used to give the guardians of his Republic a sort of auditory scaffolding of human potential:

[M]usical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognise and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.[50]

Dance uses a large range of body motions, some of which are rare outside of a dance context and so demand that you leave habitual movement patterns aside while learning. Because these motions are at least synchronized with the external auditory stimulus of music, and may in addition be in part reactive to the motion of a dance partner, they demand attentiveness and sensory-motor coordination.

The promise of dance for improving grace is the assumption that exercise and learning of this kind of coordinated, challenging motor skill will improve one’s poise more generally.

Other recreational activities that are sometimes mentioned in the context of gracefulness-learning include tai chi / qigong, yoga, some varieties of gymnastics, formalized tea-ceremonies, walking meditation, contact juggling, poi spinning, improv acting, and figure skating.

Fake it ’til you make it

The authors I reviewed disagreed on this point, but some recommended a “fake it ’til you make it” strategy for boosting confidence, which would then in turn boost poise.[51] The theory behind this is that by adopting a confident pose (often literally: a posture meant to embody a feeling of confidence), you would both feel more confident and appear more confident. These feelings of confidence, and the subtle affirmations of those around you, then feed-back into your self-assessment whereupon your confidence grows and you don’t have to fake it any longer but can just hitch a ride on it to improve your performance.

For a while, there was a craze for “power posing” and researchers claimed that some varieties of confident poses caused measurable changes in various hormone levels which mediated this effect. This unfortunately was one of the more prominent examples of the (failure of) replication crisis. But it’s still easy to find advice that is based on this theory.[52]

I wonder also if the fake-it method might backfire in this way: If you begin with faked confidence, and whatever increasing confidence you have starts from that foundation, aren’t you likely to always have in the back of your mind the reminder that your confidence is built on sand? Isn’t this a recipe for impostor syndrome?

Conclusion

I have more appreciation now for how gracefulness can be both a variety of human flourishing and a sort of visible metric of the presence of certain virtues.

I remain a little frustrated at the nebulous way it is sometimes defined, and by hints that this definition can be a little circular (effective efficient actions are graceful, and the actor’s gracefulness is what makes them more effective and efficient).

Whether gracefulness is itself a virtue or is derived from virtues is a question I wasn’t able to answer to my satisfaction, and so I’m just going to hold on to that question as a little asterisk in my mind to remind myself that tension is still there.

  1. ^

    Edmund Burke A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1767) Ⅲ.ⅹⅻ “Grace”, pp. 226–27

  2. ^

    An exception is Herbert Spencer (“Gracefulness” Essays: Moral, Political, and Aesthetic ch. Ⅷ, p. 313) who discussed how symmetry is ungraceful in statues of the human form, while the asymmetry of e.g. the head turned or tilted, the weight on one leg (for example, in Michelangelo’s David), appears more graceful.

  3. ^

    Friedrich Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” (1793) Friedrich Schiller in Eight Volumes: Æsthetical and Philosophical Essays (1902) pp. 175–211

  4. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 176

  5. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 178

  6. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 188

  7. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” pp. 188–89

  8. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” pp. 192–93

  9. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 192

  10. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” pp. 202–03

  11. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 204

  12. ^

    Spencer “Gracefulness”

  13. ^

    Anne Oliver Finishing Touches: A Guide to Being Poised, Polished, and Beautifully Prepared for Life (1990) p. 48

  14. ^
  15. ^

    Wiliam Hazlitt The Round Table (1817) “On Manner” Vol. Ⅰ pp. 120–122

  16. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” pp. 191–92, 194–96

  17. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 205

  18. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 206

  19. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 209

  20. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 210

  21. ^

    Cicero De Officiis (William Guthrie translation, 1820) Ⅰ.27 pp. 62–64

  22. ^

    Dorothy Parker “The Artist’s Reward” The New Yorker 22 November 1929

  23. ^

    Michael Drury How to Develop Poise and Self Confidence (1963) p. 7

  24. ^

    Burke Sublime and Beautiful pp. 226–27

  25. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 185

  26. ^

    James Joyce Ulysses (1922) p. 3. This is the opening sentence of the novel. I also love how the rhythm of “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” resembles the drum roll-off that begins a parade march: it brings you to attention and gives you some forward momentum right at the beginning.

  27. ^

    Spencer “Gracefulness”

  28. ^

    Goyder Gravitas p. 24

  29. ^

    Josephine Perry “How to perform well under pressure” Psyche 17 November 2021

  30. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches p. 113

  31. ^

    See for example Elizabeth Bennett sparring with the ruthless and presumptuous Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride And Prejudice.

  32. ^

    Goyder Gravitas pp. 9–10

  33. ^

    see Goyder Gravitas pp. 45–59

  34. ^

    J.E. Goldthwait “The relation of Posture to Human Efficiency and the Influence of Poise upon the Support and Function of the Viscera” American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery Ⅶ.371 (February 1910)

  35. ^

    Spencer “Gracefulness”

  36. ^
  37. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches p. 3

  38. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches p. 5

  39. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches pp. 15–16

  40. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches pp. 46–52

  41. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches p. 45

  42. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches p. 52

  43. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches pp. 15–16. “Find a position in which you can be relaxed and alert at the same time. Close your eyes. Take three deep breaths and let them out slowly, breathing out all tightness and worry, breathing in peace and well-being. Take a few moments to experience your physical sensations, your feelings, and your thoughts. ¶ As you move your attention to the thoughts entering your mind, do not dwell on any one. Look at the thought as if you were an uninterested spectator and then dismiss it. When the next thought enters, treat it in the same way. Continue to do this until you feel that you have gained some control at being able to push thoughts away. Imagine them carried off on the wings of a butterfly.” … “then focus on something of beauty. If nothing at hand satisfies, study a candle in your mind’s eye. Imagine the changing size and color of the flame. Gradually, wonderful, loving, and serene thoughts will come to you—such an experience is an inner beauty treatment that will not long remain hidden inside.”

  44. ^

    Goyder Gravitas p. 25, quoting Paul Ekman Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (2003)

  45. ^

    J.E. Aman, N. Elangovan, I-L. Yeh, J. Konczak “The effectiveness of proprioceptive training for improving motor function: a systematic review” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2014)

    see also L. Winter, Q. Huang, J.V.L. Sertic, J. Konczak “The effectiveness of proprioceptive training for improving motor performance & motor dysfunction: a systematic review” Frontiers in Rehabilitation Science (2022)

  46. ^

    A. Lenka & J. Jankovic “Sports-Related Dystonia” Tremor and Other Hyperkinetic Movements (2021)

  47. ^

    For example, the Feldenkrais Method concentrates on movement not as an end in itself, but because movement is “the main means of improving the self” (Moshé Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement, 1990, p. 33).

  48. ^

    Moshé Feldenkrais The Elusive Obvious (1981) pp. 92–93, Awareness Through Movement (1990) p. 61

  49. ^

    Alexander Pope “An Essay on Criticism” 6th ed. (1719) p. 27

  50. ^

    Plato Republic Ⅲ (Benjamin Jowett translation)

  51. ^

    See for example “Personal Presentation” from the Skills You Need website

  52. ^

    See, for example, Adam Rockman “Overcome Social Anxiety” from the Skills You Need website: Standing and sitting with good posture, slow movements, raising your hands above your head, and other confident poses lower cortisol, the stress hormone. The movements also increase production of other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are usually associated with feeling good.”

  53. ^

    Schiller “On Grace and Dignity” p. 188

  54. ^

    Oliver Finishing Touches p. 45

New Comment
2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
[-]gjm40

Even though it would have broken the consistent pattern of the titling of these pieces, I find myself slightly regretting that this one isn't called "Grace Notes".

How about people who just don't "give a fuck", are Nishkama Karma, and maintain emotional composure even when they create disharmony (sometimes even chaos) in the environment around them? They are graceful on the inside, and maintain internal composure in the face of chaos, but others may view their movements as ungraceful particularly b/c they have the sense (and enough of a reality distortion field) to "make the world adapt to them", rather than "adapt to the world" (if they succeed, they make the world adapt to them such that the world around them becomes more harmonious long-term after the initial reduction in harmony [due to the clumsiness of the world learning to adapt to them]). It takes time to learn grace, and when choosing the ordering of vital skills to learn, grace is often learned later than skills one has comparative advantage in.

[in the long run, learning to read a room is one of the best ways of developing grace, though it matters more if one is ultra-famous than when one is mostly unknown and can afford to experiment with consequence-free failure]

(asking questions that appear dumb to some people can also be "ungraceful" to the audience, even if important. the strategic among that crowd will just have good enough models of everyone to know who the safest people are to ask the "dumb questions" to)

Sometimes, the fastest way to learn is to create faster feedback loops around yourself ("move fast and break things"). The phrase "move fast and break things" appears disharmonious/ungraceful, but (if done in a limited way that "takes profits" before turning into full-blown mania), can be one of the fastest ways of achieving a more harmonious broader state, even when creating some local chaos/disharmony.

People who appear to have high levels of grace can also be extremely dangerous because they can get people to trust them to the very end, especially if their project is an inherently destabilizing project. Ideally, you want a 1-1 correspondence between authenticity/robustness/lack of brittleness and grace, but people's perception of gracefulness at all levels is not high enough for the perception of gracefulness to be the most reliable perception.

Having grace often means doing "efficient calculations" without being explicit about these calculations. It's like keeping your words to yourself and not revealing your cards unless necessary (explicit calculations are clumsy/clunky). Sometimes, a proper understanding of Strauss is necessary to develop grace in some environments (what you say is not what you really mean, except to the readers who have enough context to jump all the layers of abstraction - it may also be needed to communicate unobvious messages in environments where discretion is important)

Patience is also grace (and not getting into situations that cause you to "lose control"/be impatient/exciteable/manic OR do things out of order). At the same time, there are ways of turning a reputation of ditching meetings into gracefulness (after all, most meetings do last longer than needed, as Yishan Wong once mentioned) [some projects also require a high deal of urgency, potentially including eras of accelerated AGI timelines]

Having the appearance of "whatever happens, happens" is graceful. As someone who knows many in the longevity community, I know that having the appearance of "fearing death" or "wanting to live forever" is super-ungraceful (and gives PR image problems in its ungracefulness). There are some people in longevity who are closet immortalists who can appear graceful because they don't appear as if they care that much about whether or not they live forever. In a similar way, doomerism about AI is extremely ungraceful (though those who are closeted doomers/immortalists can sometimes be secretly graceful to those who are less closeted about these things).

Things that are not the most graceful: over-correcting/over-compensating, irritability, appearing emotional enough to lose control, constantly seeking feedback (implies lack of confidence), visibly chasing likes, obsessing over intermediate computations/near-term reinforcement loops, "people pleasing" (esp when one is obvious about it), perseverating, laughing at one's own jokes, not being steadfast, not knowing when to stop (autistics are prone to this..), going for the food too early (semaglutide can help with grace..) Autistic people often lack grace, though some are able to develop it really well over long timescales.

Grace is having confidence over the process without becoming too attentive to short-term reinforcement/feedback loops (this includes patience as part of the process).

As with everything else, intelligence makes grace easier (and makes it possible to learn some things gracefully), but there is enough variation in grace that one can more than make up for lower intelligence with context+grace+strategic awareness. There is also loss of grace with older ages as working memory decline can increase impatience (Richard Posner said writing ability is the last to go, but that's because there's no real time observation of the process, and there's grace in observing the dynamics).