Something interesting happened on the way to November’s election at a stop known as the first debate. On one side stood the incumbent president, the holder of the highest position in the land, if not the whole world, a position of unquestioned power and prestige. On the other side stood the contender to the post, apparently the underdog, and probable loser. But the tables turned, empowered by several well-placed dominance gestures by the challenger-–moves that would make any commander take notice.
President Barack Obama had the office but Mitt Romney had the chutzpah. Romney came at President Obama with a volley of powerful nonverbal gestures. For example, Romney used his eyes in a manner that former American Secretary of State Dean Rusk would surely have appreciated. During the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 when the Soviet ships backed off and headed home, Rusk condensed what happened into a few famous words, “We went eyeball-to-eyeball with the Soviets,” Rusk said, “and they blinked.”
Social psychologists who study the “nonverbal” underbelly to human communication have identified a behavior called, “visual dominance.” It involves looking but the key thing is not amount of eye contact but the ratio of looking-while-speaking to looking-while-listening. Visual dominance is not staring or at least not staring in the manner of young boys or smitten lovers. Instead, the dominant person in a conversation looks when he or she is talking and mostly looks away when he or she is “listening.” In contrast, the more submissive person looks more while he is listening and averts his gaze when he is talking (if he is even given the chance to talk). The visual dominance pattern says in effect, “Listen up. I’m talking!” Mitt Romney had the floor; Barack Obama moved to the side.