A Manner of Speaking

by Maggie Van Ostrand

During this crucial U.S. presidential election year, we might find it helpful to carefully watch the candidates’ body language in order to catch them in lies (Lying politicians? What a concept!) or other traits American voters need to be aware of.

Knitted brows, hands on hips, rolled eyes, tapping a foot, bobbing the head, pouting, shrugging, crossed arms, raising one brow, clenched jaw, pursed lips, can reveal their innermost thoughts with nonverbal communication.

Hillary Clinton nods a good deal which tells the viewer she agrees with herself. Senator Clinton, a Democratic Party contender for presidential nominee, points to individual members of her audience while nodding, and frequently claps in rhythm to their chanting H-I-L-L-A-R-Y. This is one way in which to draw the audience in, to make them a part of her campaign. Her smile seems forced. Of late, she has a stare reminiscent of the Runaway Bride’s, which we might chalk up to fatigue. Or maybe a pair of toothpicks. She has an arsenal of body language for us to study and draw our own conclusions, not necessarily the ones she wishes us to draw. People tend to disbelieve her.

Senator Barack Obama does not clap, does not nod his head, and rarely points to anyone in the audience. He gives the impression of being a part of the audience simultaneously with being its focal point. His confidence and appealing smile have the ring of sincerity. Obama leans forward toward his audience, a friendly position. (Bending away indicates subconscious negative feelings.) He holds the microphone with a gentle familiarity. People tend to believe him.

John McCain blinks a lot, though that may be the bright lights of the television cameras. Our blink rate reflects psychological arousal in the manner of a polygraph test. The normal, resting blink rate of a human is 20 closures per minute, with the average blink lasting one quarter of a second. Significantly faster rates may reflect emotional stress, as aroused, e.g., in the fight-or-flight response. And McCain also slices through the air with a flat hand when he wants to make a particularly relevant point. He says “My friends” a lot. People tend to want to believe him.

Politicians, like the rest of us, lift one eyebrow in disbelief, clasp their arms to isolate or to protect themselves, shrug their shoulders with indifference, wink one eye for intimacy, tap their fingers for impatience, slap their foreheads for forgetfulness, hold their index finger up to signal “wait.”

Jutting one’s chin is a nonverbal sign of superiority, arrogance, and disdain. So is looking down one’s nose. An example of both would be former New York governor Eliot Spitzer.

A man’s Adams apple will bob up and down if he is nervous, as did former Vice President Dan Quayle’s when he was told during a campaign, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Politicians reveal, conceal, and spiel without speech. This is a very telling campaign.