Bernie and Hillary Naked on Stage

Coached body language looks contrived and reveals more than people think

Posted Feb 18, 2016

My previous post examined Ted Cruz’s odd facial expressions. Now, on to the Dems.

One of Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses in her fight for the Democratic nomination is that she does not come off as sincere as Bernie Sanders. Critics point out that she flip–flops often, reversing her stance on issues such as gay marriage, immigration, gun control, and the Iraq war. Clinton answers this charge by saying that her decisions are simply based on the “best information we have available,” although more often than not they follow a shift in public opinion.

The word “conviction” does not come to mind when describing her.  

Gage Skidmore
The "Hands-Down" pose implies conviction.
Source: Gage Skidmore

How, then, might she come across to the public as more trustworthy and sincere? She could start by being herself rather than someone else. Stop scheming to figure out who the electorate “wants her to be,” and stop squishing herself into that mold. As Dr. Jack Brown at Body Language Success argues, Clinton appears to have been coached to imitate Sanders’ “palm–down” hand gestures that are known to bestow a sense of conviction and dominance to one’s statements [1].

You can hardly blame Clinton or her advice–givers for raising the bar (or her arms) when it comes to Clinton’s speaking style. Sanders’ message is resonating with voters, and his wild, gesticulating hands and wagging fingers may partly account for the enthusiasm. Decades of science backs up this notion [2].

The “palm–down” movement that is used to emphasize the toughness and strength of one’s words is part of the gestural communication system that theorists such as Stephen Pinker say was the evolutionary beginnings for homo sapiens speech.

Body language is “visible speech” [3]. Once you understand how the neural circuits of the vocal apparatus connect to the rest of the motor system, it is obvious that gesture is an intimate and deeply–interwoven aspect of our ability to communicate. Pointing is likely the very first gesture to emerge in our pre–verbal language.

Gage Skidmore
Wild, expansive gestures make audiences feel the Bern.
Source: Gage Skidmore

The neural circuits for laryngeal and chest muscle movement as well as breathing are interconnected. Persons who use their hands a lot while speaking do so because speech and gesture are part of the same package for communication. The listener’s auditory system also knows to expect speech when it sees gesture. Everyone looks for it, and everyone does it. The Italians are famous for talking with their hands—with their whole bodies, in fact.

And all of us lip read whether we know it or not; we especially rely on it in noisy situations. The tight inter–sensory connection between sight and sound—a universal kind of synesthesia—is why even bad ventriloquists convince us that the dummy is talking. Cinema is another example in which we perceive the dialogue coming from the actors’ mouths on–screen rather than it actual source of the surrounding speakers.

It is instructive to watch the candidates with the sound muted because it makes their gestures more obvious. Try it and ask yourself what their body language is communicating. Did anything surprise you?

Clinton’s hand movements don’t always come across as natural. If their timing is off they can become a distraction and call to question the sincerity of her message. Sanders, by contrast, seems more sincere in his gestures, as if they are naturally part of his argumentative style (see: How people argue in Brooklyn).

Inside Edition recently made the same point about Sanders’ and Clinton’s smiles: His eyes narrow and crinkle when he smiles, a well–established sign of authenticity, whereas she tends to smile “socially,” Miss–America style, without the eye crackling as if to mask something. (See my earlier Ted Cruz post for more on heartfelt versus feigned smiles.)

Body language is language, a topic a recent History Channel documentary explored in depth [4]. I don’t think Clinton stands to gain from gestures that seem inauthentic or copycat imitations of her opponent. If anything she could set herself apart by being herself. Meanwhile, Sanders’ energetic “out-of-control hand gesture[s],”as The Onion put it, may become a distraction instead of an advantage, and could eventually knock him down.

Of course all the candidates are coached and rehearsed, as are many public personalities. During filming for ABC's Primetime some years ago, host Chris Cuomo told me that he’d been working on his “blink rate.” According to media coaches who are paid small fortunes, there is an optimum number of times–per–minute that performers should blink in order to come across as trustworthy and sincere. This kind of stage–managed acting manipulates viewers every second. How many would recoil if they understood how hard big media works to sway them?

Next up: How your chin gives away your thoughts.

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[2] Gesture and Thought, David McNeill, University of Chicago Press, 2008; Gestures,  Vilém Flusser, University of Minnesota, 2014; and the original impetus to the topic, Bodytalk: The Meaning of Human Gestures,  Desmond Morris, Crown, 1995

[3] Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance, Adam Kendon, Cambridge University Press, 2004


Bernie Sanders photo Credit: Gage Skidmore on Flickr,

Hillary Clinton photo credit: Gage Skidmore on Flickr,