Leaders’ body language monitored closely during campaign

FAITH WOOD/Guest Columnist

For those who are sick and tired of the lead up to yet another election, whose first instinct is to run screaming from the room every time the evening news comes on TV, here’s a different way to approach the seemingly endless coverage of the campaign trail. Try turning off the sound and watching the candidates’ body language.

There’s a lot to be learned from body language, the non-verbal communication which runs the gamut from facial expressions to body position to how one dresses. Body language is highly important in that when people meet, their first impression is based mainly on what they see, and then on what they hear in the tone of voice and finally on what is being said (less than 10 per cent).

Politicians are usually experts at controlling how emotions play out on their faces so this can be a bit more challenging to monitor. While micro-gestures – mouth, eyebrows – are good indicators of a person’s inner thoughts and unconscious attitudes, they are only seen in a flash, and then they’re gone.

However, there is other body language that is easier to read and can give a person’s inner beliefs away.

Let’s start with the feet. Feet are the most honest part of the body – if they are pointing toward the exit, it’s a pretty good sign that the speaker really wants to leave. However, since the average person doesn’t often have the chance to see a candidate’s feet, the second most honest part of the body to check out is the shoulders. Slouching, slumped shoulders do not engender trust or confidence and a dropped shoulder can often indicate in which direction the exit lies.

Hand gestures also speak volumes. For example, the higher the hands go up the body, the more desperate the speaker appears. Hands dropping to the side, drawing eyes downward, give the appearance of a lack of confidence, more insecure than assertive.

Eye contact is the cement that binds people together. Eye contact involves the listener and there is no surer way to break a communication bond than by failing to look at the audience.

It is good to keep in mind that body language needs to be taken in context. For example, if a candidate is speaking in a large lecture theatre, he/she will have to look up at the audience. When seen in close-up, without the broader picture, this might appear to be a haughty attitude, with chin up, when it’s simply the speaker attempting to maintain eye contact with members of the broader audience.

But if you want to have some fun and see what the candidates are really thinking – as opposed to what they are saying – turn off the sound, watch for these types of movements and expressions and interpret to your heart’s desire. (And for the candidates, it might not hurt to check themselves out and see just what messages they are conveying, non-verbally (and inadvertently), to the voting public.)

• Eye contact: Does the candidate actually look at the people to whom he/she is speaking…or does the candidate look everywhere but (e.g. up, over, around, down, through)?

• Eye blocks, including lower eyelid tension or touching of the eye or brow: These may be fleeting and occur only at the moment discomforting information (e.g. tough, intelligent question for the candidate) is received.

• Hand movement: Does the candidate point his/her finger, as if to say, “I’m right and you’d better understand that,” or “You need to learn this, because I know what I’m talking about and you are an idiot.”? Does he/she use upward-moving open gestures? Are hands raised, palms up, as if to say, “You do believe me, don’t you?”

• Hunched shoulders or slouching: Is the candidate trying to take up less space? Does he/she give unconvincing half shrugs? Is he/she trying to hide something?

• Dropped shoulder: “Quick, which way to the exit?”

Other signals we should all be watching for:

• tucked chin (lack of confidence); furrowed brow (worry, stress); lip-biting (anxiety); lip compression (negative emotions); lip pursing (disagreement); lip licking or tongue movements (self-pacifying); blowing out air (tension release);

• clothing adjustments, such as ventilating behaviours (adjusting collar or tie); covering or touching the neck or playing with watch, necklace or earrings (self-pacifying); pulling jacket closed (blocking); and

• sudden onset of foot movement (jiggling or kicking away unwelcome discussions).

With all of this in mind, future columns, beginning today with a look at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to be followed by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP leader Jack Layton and finally Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe) will sneak a peek at the federal candidates and their unconscious tells.