News and Tribune

January 25, 2013

STAWAR: Loopy signatures

Local columnist

— Last weekend, my two oldest granddaughters were discussing signatures. The younger one asked her sister if she minded if she made some letters in her signature in the same way that her older sister did. It was as if she was afraid of violating some sort of a trademark. 

I suppose a signature is your own personal logo. My wife Diane told the girls that since they were sisters, it was natural that their writing might look similar in some respects, but over time they would both develop distinctive signatures. 

The discussion reflected the territoriality that can often be seen among siblings who are only a few years apart. At one point in the past, the older sister tried to claim the color pink for her exclusive use. 

Signatures have been in the news lately, with President Obama’s nomination of Jack Lew for Secretary of the Treasury. If confirmed, Lew’s signature will be on U.S currency. His illegible autograph consist of a misshapen “J” and seven scrawled loops. New York Magazine called it “a Slinky that has lost its spring” or “one of those crazy straws you get at Six Flags.” It has also been compared it to the “squiggles” of white frosting that adorned the iconic Hostess Cupcake. 

It’s unfortunate Lew’s handwriting has garnered more attention than his qualifications. Personally, I can sympathize since my own handwriting has been the subject of persistent criticism. My third-grade teacher Mrs. Lomax, who had the unenviable job of teaching us the Palmer Method, referred to my cursive as “chicken scratching,” and on more than one occasion she said that my work looked like someone was writing with a dirty fingernail. 

It was a rare day when my homework didn’t have a couple of holes in it from overzealous erasing. 

My brother, Norman, also had poor handwriting. Even as an adult, he used his own unique mixture of printing and cursive. Some experts say that skills required for printing are so different from those needed for cursive that most children have to learn to write twice. 

I always admired Norman’s signature, which had a flourish coming off the final “r” back to cross the ”t” in “Stawar.” When I graduated from high school, I decided that I needed to have a more mature signature, preferably one with some sort of distinctive touch like Norman’s. My signature was the same one I had in third grade. 

The summer after graduation I worked at a golf shop where I sold golf balls, tees, gloves and other equipment. Since I had to write a sales ticket for each item and sign it, this gave me a great opportunity to perfect my signature. I changed my capital “T” from the stupid Palmer Method to the way my mother wrote and incorporated a variation of Norman’s flourish, so that it crossed the “t” in Stawar and at the same time completed the “y” in Terry. By the end of the summer I had signed my name thousands of times and was quite pleased with my new signature. Even if my cursive was still illegible, my signature was pretty cool. 

President Obama was recently involved in a signature-related hullabaloo, when he had the fiscal cliff bill signed by the White House’s autopen while he was in Hawaii. The autopen is a device that allows the president to put his signature on documents without being present. The apparatus has long been used to affix the president signature to mass mailings. 

Obama is the only president, however, to use the autopen to actually sign legislation. He used it to extend the Patriot Act while he visited Europe and to approve a spending bill while in Asia. Although some have questioned its use, George W. Bush’s legal advisers wrote a memo in 2005 that affirmed its legality for signing legislation. 

According to handwriting analyst Fiona Mackay, a signature “is how you want to be seen” consciously and unconsciously. It’s “your public face” and your calling card. Peoples’ signatures change over their lifetimes and it is common to use different signatures for various functions; like signing a mortgage, a check, a love letter or birthday card. 

The art of interpreting handwriting called graphology has been controversial for the past century. Despite its persistent popularity, most research does not support its validity. A 1982 meta-analysis of over 200 studies concluded that graphology could not accurately predict performance on any personality measure. The British Psychological Society likened graphology to astrology and considers both of them to have “zero validity.”

Despite the lack of evidence, many interpretations are based on common sense. Writers Hugh Wilson and Ruby Ernica Samy have each compiled interpretations of the most common variables, including:

1. Size: Large signatures indicate confidence and a high opinion of one’s self. An extremely oversized signature or one in all capitals may reflect arrogance and exhibitionistic tendencies. Small size suggests shyness, low self-esteem and a wish not to be noticed.

2. Underlining: Short and straight underlining suggests self-reliance but an unassuming manner. Showy underlines reflect attention-seeking tendencies, while thick underlining may indicate a need for stability. Zig-zag underlines reveal uncertainty.

3. Slant: Signatures that slant to the right suggest aggressive confrontation of the world while a slant to the left suggests disengagement and nonconformity.

4. Rising or Falling: A signature that rises suggests optimism and the ability to meet challenges. A falling or declining signature indicates the opposite — pessimism and depression. Level signatures indicate emotional stability.

5. Legibility: Legible text followed by scrawled signature suggests a reluctance to reveal oneself. Overall legibility suggests a straightforward manner. It may also imply a lack of assertiveness and modesty. Signatures that are hard to read reflect intelligence and fast thinking. 

6. Dots: Dotting your “i” with a picture suggests creativity. A straight line for a dotted “i” reflects a hurried pace. The lack of a dot suggests inattention to detail, while a perfectly placed one reflects compulsive features. A dot high over the stem may indicate ambition.

7. Showiness: A highly embellished signature, while egotistical and attention-seeking, can occasionally indicate underlying feelings of inadequacy. Such signatures are common for people working in the arts, show business or psychology. 

I’m not sure I really believe any of this graphology business, but I still wouldn’t want a doctor who dots his “i’s” with smiley faces.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at