Body Language and Public Perception of Our 2016 Candidates
Written by Mehjabeen Rahman
Introduction and Author’s note:
When I asked body language expert Susan Constantine how I should present this piece and whether it should be supportive of any one candidate over the other, she gave me a very clear response. “Absolutely not. As body language experts, we are in some ways people of strong influence. When people seek our opinion, it is our professional responsibility to remove all biases. To make it an advocacy piece would be compromise the integrity of our profession and infect the credibility of the opinion.” Thus, this article is not meant to sway readers one way or the other, but rather present an objective analysis and offer of expertise based on observations of the current presidential candidates’ real life actions, analyzed against the backdrop of professional training, education and experience.
There is a reason that Donald Trump has had unbelievable success at the polls this presidential campaign. Body language expert Susan Constantine cogently remarks, “He has absolutely no problem showing his emotion or filtering his words. He has the kind of raw, uncontrolled presentation that all other politicians lack, and this is what makes the public believe that he is more genuine than other candidates.” Probably because Donald Trump has little experience as politician, but that never holds him back. The kinds of emotional outbursts that Trump has on screen, and the lack of any attempt to curtail this kind of exorbitant body language is exactly the kind of body language that makes him stand out compared to other candidates and attract public attention. Moreover, his inflamed demeanor and exaggerated facial expressions that accompany his verbal speech make him all the more believable. In addition to his celebrity profile, In sum, a lack of passion is not candidate Trump’s problem.
When analyzing the aspects of Donald Trump’s body language that make him so unattractive as a candidate, Susan Constantine specially noted Dr. Mark Frank’s research on techniques of verbal and nonverbal deception. “Donald Trump uses a wide array of deceptive tools to detract attention away from the real substance of his messages when speaking in public.” With respect to his verbal speech for example, Trump often employs what is called the “third-person gimmick.” According to Susan Constantine, this is a strategy of verbal deception where the speaker overexaggerates support for a certain message by instructing the questioner to “ask this guy, that guy, all those people,” without making mention of any actual specific person or group. By using this tactic, the public’s attention is diverted from the issue and the spotlight has shifted to the “third person” who can presumably provide “proof” for whatever subject is at issue. Another popular deceptive trick that Donald Trump uses is called argumentum ad hominem, Latin for “argument to the person” and defined as a fallacious argument that attacks not an opponent’s beliefs, but his motives or character. When a speaker uses this tactic, he or she essentially attacks the questioner, instead of addressing the issue. Donald Trump specifically used this tactic when under fire for his inconsistent comments on abortion earlier this month.
The problem with Donald Trump’s body language is that he is extremely “fantastical” and also uses techniques of nonverbal deception, says Susan Constantine. “He very often shrugs his shoulders, or collapses one shoulder forward when caught off-guard.” Susan goes on to describe how Trump’s hand gestures can change from very feminine to very fierce (and often unpredictably), which communicates massive internal insecurities. For example, when expressing discontent, Donald Trump seems to curl his top lip in towards his gums and teeth, indicating uncertainty and confusion. Moreover, Trump’s body language is just as inflammatory and impulsive as his speech. Perhaps due to his lack of experience in the political arena, Trump severely lacks the appropriate etiquette. For example during political debates, the other candidates like Ted Cruz and John Kasich will turn their shoulders towards whoever is speaking, and afford Trump the same courtesy. Trump on the other hand not only demonstrates disrespect, but often makes glaring facial gestures that express scorn and disagreement with what a speaker may be saying.
Ted Cruz has many of the qualities of a strong leader and his non-verbal cues play a significant role in why supporters perceive him as such. A very “seasoned” politician, Ted Cruz has a strong handle on exactly what kinds of subtle cues help deliver a more convincing and persuasive message. He is skilled at knowing exactly when to pause speaking for the most impact, and has good control on the “metrics” of his speaking, like speed, tempo, and points of emphasis. According to Susan Constantine, this kind of control on non-verbal cues is what makes Ted Cruz seem like a leader with a “strong directive.” This is in line with his personal beliefs that too emotional of a temperament is a weakness in potential candidates. He even has a signature move. Susan Constantine thinks that although all the candidates have gestural quirks that are wholly unique and in that sense signature, Ted Cruz’ “praying-hands style” signature gesture, where he puts his palms together and lightly shakes them up and down, is of special mention. Signature moves like this one tend to show that the speaker is in a zone of comfortability and believes in what he is saying, which communicates genuinity. It invites feelings of trust or positivity as it becomes an identifying characteristic of a public figure, something akin to what sports fans feel when an athlete has a signature move after a good performance.
Those very qualities can be a double-edged sword for Cruz when that kind of control over his body language makes him appear too mechanical or ritualistic. According to Susan Constantine, “one of the things that makes politicians appear less credible is when their body language is too controlled- it communicates a real lack of genuinity. One of the trouble-spots in Cruz’ body language is what seems like discomfort with smiling, in an attempt to be conservative about showing too much emotion.” In Cruz’ case, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect if the body language is too well-practiced to the point where even smiling appears controlled. A large part of what makes a smile genuine is the element of spontaneity so when a smile seems controlled or forced, it detracts from a person’s credibility. Especially if the smile appears forced, not because of real discontent (in which case it would be a genuinely fake smile), but rather because of too much practice controlling emotions.
Cruz also has a tendency to firmly point his finger in a scolding fashion, even just when passionately trying to generate support for a position or directing a public action. For example, when zealously advocating against supporting Donald Trump because it would hand Hillary Clinton the lead “on a silver platter,” Ted Cruz was delivering his message by using a very sharp, pointed finger-almost like a command or ultimatum. That kind of body language tends to communicate a slight penal undertone, a subtle “don’t do it or else.”
According to Susan Constantine, this presidential candidate and current governor of Ohio has non-verbal cues that make him an attractive candidate. “He has a demeanor that makes an audience comfortable with his presence. His body language evokes feelings of warmth and he comes off as compassionate.” She specifically noted his tendency to show that he takes the time to listen to questions or other candidates and his ability to present himself as a very empathetic speaker. Moreover, his physical stance and overall posture are strong and don’t generally waver. For example, John Kasich does not shrug his shoulders or let one shoulder collapse forward, unlike Donald Trump. These non-verbal cues tend to communicate strength, security, and an almost relaxed attitude, making him seem like a more genuine candidate.
The problem that John Kasich has is opposite that of Ted Cruz, but along the same spectrum. Unlike Cruz, whose body language is at times too controlled and rehearsed- John Kasich’s non-verbal cues severely lack conviction. Susan Constantine says that his body language throughout his campaign has consisted of very weak gesturing. His movements, especially his hand movements, appear to be somewhat “flighty” and demonstrate very little control over his body language. When addressing an audience, Kasich tends to keep his elbows and fingers bent in an attempt to show comfort and approachability, but in reality, this lack of firmness correlates to lack of confidence. In addition to the general whimsical nature of his movements, Susan Constantine opines that John Kasich’s biggest problem is his involuntary facial reflexes. “He has a clear muscular tick that affects his mouth area when he is speaking. The issue with this, as a practical matter, is that it’s just too distracting.” According to Susan, this kind of oral reflex is a neurological indicator of underlying anxiety and it really detracts from the impact of his message. In order to compensate for the distraction, Kasich tends to make hand gestures outside his frame- except those gestures are weak. “The public may perceive him as a leader lacking tenacity.”
Bernie Sanders’ body language is especially unique, compared to his candidate counterparts. “What makes Bernie such an attractive candidate for some has a lot to do with body language that communicates openness,” says Susan Constantine. According to the body language expert, Bernie Sanders’ nonverbal cues tend to include very broad, open-armed gestures. As Susan already noted, politicians tend to “stay within their frame” when speaking in public, whereas Bernie very often does not- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in his case. These kinds of gestures are often interpreted as warm and welcoming, or even accepting. “The thing about Bernie Sanders is he is not afraid to show his compassion or emotion. He says how he feels and does little to control his exhibition of positive emotions when he really believes in something.” People are drawn to how Sanders’ body language evokes feelings of comfortability, warmth, and acceptance, almost with a hint of paternalism.
However, according to Susan Constantine, this kind over overflow is referred to as “flooding,” and though it stems from genuinity, it ultimately can look like an inability to keep his composure. Though body language that is inviting, warm, or welcoming is desirable in a candidate, people tend to seek a strong, assertive leader. Susan says “Bernie Sanders has a tendency to flail his arms, often when he is excited. This could be interpreted as a sign of a lack of control, especially with respect to decision-making when personal biases or emotions are involved. Often people will seek an assertive leader, even if an arrogant one, over a leader who seems kinder or weaker.” Susan Constantine goes on to say, “he also has a bad habit of using his index finger, pointed up toward the sky, when he is criticizing something. The problem with this kind of non-verbal cue is that it appears very punitive and antagonistic.” The over-broad gestures coupled with the punitive finger-pointing can be perceived as mixed messages.
Hillary Clinton has often been playfully compared to the popular House of Cards character, Claire Underwood- and according to Susan Constantine, there is good reason. “Hillary Clinton is such a well-seasoned, polished, and professional politician that she is exactly the kind of strong, controlled leader that people seek.” After years of experience working in political office, and having been First Lady when her husband was president, Hillary Clinton has the ABC’s of politics practiced down to a T, and demonstrates extremely strong leadership skills. More than she is knowledgeable, she is one of the best at “knowing her audience” and her body language reflects that. She is also an example of a politician that speaks very much within her frame and knows when to utilize hand gestures for maximum impact. According to Susan Constantine, “When you reserve hand gestures for specific moments during speech, it is the best way to maximize the impact of specific points and highlight important points of any message.” Clinton’s body language is near perfect in terms of verbal to nonverbal congruence. Susan Constantine explained that congruence in the body language context denotes when a speaker’s nonverbal cues match in expression and intensity with the verbal messages communicated.
The problem with the kind of congruence that Clinton exhibits is that it appears almost too rehearsed, too perfect. Politicians are performers, and Hillary Clinton is one of the best. One of the nonverbal cues that Susan Constantine highlights as attracting negative attention is candidate Clinton’s smile when speaking to the public. “Usually, with more genuine smiles, there is an air of slight imperfection. The curves and contours of the face and mouth are less precise and are much lighter than when a smile is forced.” With respect to Clinton’s smile, Susan Constantine suggests that Hillary is guilty of “smile-posing” or over-smiling on cue. Her smile can seem exaggerated and last much longer than a genuine smile would, appearing almost “frozen in place” at times. Moreover, when she over-smiles, her eyebrows are slightly more raised than usual and at a disconnect with the rest of her body language. “Her eyes don’t show the same intensity of emotion that her facial gestures and stance seem to convey.”
What makes this a little more apparent is how she handles tougher or unexpected questions as opposed to answers to others that have the same mechanical feel to them. Now, of course, all politicians have some theatrics in their public personas- it’s one of the essentials of presentation that makes them engaging when speaking in public. However, the difference in Hilary’s presentation and President Obama’s, for example, is that when Obama answers a tough question, there isn’t as large a discrepancy between the more rehearsed answers. When Clinton is faced with a tougher question, she breaks gaze, she hesitates, and her affect changes quite a bit.