February 24, 2009 2:00 am
I watched in quiet satisfaction as Barack Obama put his signature to the stimulus bill last week. He rested his forearm on the table, bent his wrist and curled his left hand all the way around. At last, a US president who writes like I do.
Four, and possibly five, of the last seven US presidents have been left-handed. (The "possibly" is because Ronald Reagan, while said to be a lefty, signed with his right.) But none of the other left-handed presidents had Mr Obama's (and my) tortured writing posture.
Google Images shows Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton writing with their left wrists straight, pens aimed back over their shoulders, just as right-handers do. George Bush the Elder curls his left writing hand very slightly. Only Mr Obama writes "upside down".
Most left-handers who write this way say it is because we learnt to write in ink - and the "hooked" style meant we could avoid smudging. I suspect this is only part of the reason. Those, such as Mr Ford and Mr Clinton, who position their pens below their writing, rather than above it, avoid smudging too.
The problem is that, writing from left to right, left-handers have to push their pens across a page, rather than pulling them like right-handers. For some poorly co-ordinated children this is too much. Turning our pens upside down meant we could pull them.
But we hook-writers are only the worst of a whole cohort of underperforming left-handers. Researchers at the University of Melbourne have found that "left-handed children do significantly worse in nearly all measures of development" - and left-handed boys do even worse than girls.
The Melbourne research, based on a study of 5,000 four and five-year-old children, found that left-handers did well enough in "expressive English", but were less competent than right-handers in "social/emotional skills, gross and fine motor skills and receptive English skills". How much less competent? The Melbourne researchers said: "This difference is large and of the same magnitude as the effect of maternal education on child development." In other words, being left-handed is as damaging to a child's development as having a bad mother.
Nor does it improve as left-handers get older. According to the Journal of Rehabilitation , research shows that left-handers are more likely to suffer from language disorders, autism, dyslexia, "schizotypal behaviour patterns", seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Worse, it is perfectly legal for employers to discriminate against left-handers. Most advanced societies now regard discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation or disability as unacceptable. Santa Cruz, California, bans discrimination on the grounds of height or weight. The District of Columbia outlaws discrimination on the basis of personal appearance. Yet employers can refuse to hire left-handers with impunity.
Why has there not been more of an outcry? Because although left-handers endure many inconveniences (try serving soup with a right-handed ladle) it seems we suffer no discrimination at work. It is not only all those presidents that show left-handers can get to the top. The US National Bureau of Economic Research has found that left-handers earn more than right-handers.
This is particularly true for the well-educated. The NBER paper said: "Among the college-educated men in our sample, those who report being left-handed earn 15 per cent more than those who report being right-handed." And here is another twist. Not only do those left-handed men end up overtaking the right-handed. They also overtake the left-handed girls who did better than them as children. Left-handed women earn no more than anyone else.
How to explain all this? The researchers give up: "We do not have a theory that reconciles all of these findings." They do point out that left-handers are disproportionately represented among artists, musicians and university faculty, so perhaps left-handers are better at "divergent thinking".
If that is true, and as the law is silent on discrimination on grounds of hand preference, should employers try to hire more left-handers?
One company that did was Hengyuanxiang, described by the South China Morning Post newspaper as "China's oldest male fashion brand". In an advertisement in 2007, it said it was looking for a marketing manager under 40 years old with at least three years in the industry and good English. Left-handers, however, were exempt from these requirements. The company responded to the inevitable outcry by saying left-handers were more innovative.
Of course, not many companies are hiring these days, but perhaps, if they are getting rid of people, they could leave left-handers until last. We may cost more - the men at least - but we are creative, or so the researchers say. Sort of. Anyway, we deserve a break. We had a terrible time at school.
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