The Language of Body Language

Why people cared about Rubio's dry mouth

Posted Feb 13, 2013

The nation is at a crucial point. Massive debates exist about the proper approach toward the debt, jobs, climate change, national security, gun control, and the size of government. President Obama delivered his State of the Union with his usual effectiveness, as he is one of the great orators of our time. Marco Rubio, an up and coming star, offered the Republican rebuttal. It was an impassioned, personal speech. But my wife and I hardly paid attention. Why?

Two reasons. First, we are Democrats, so we inevitably listen to political speeches via a particular filter (even though we consciously try to adjust for this). Second, because of Rubio’s body language. His body communicated to us that he was nervous. He touched his brow several times, perhaps to wipe sweat from it. And he obviously had dry mouth, which resulted in him desperately trying to keep his lips moist and voice smooth. Indeed, it reached a point where he made a dive for the water, and this act quickly became a talking point. News commentaries made references to it, and it was the big item in the Twitter world, so much so that some dubbed it “water-bottle gate”.

Why do we care so much about body language? The answer is twofold. The first has to do with empathy, trust, and believability. One of the key elements about language and consciousness is that language provides a window into consciousness, but, of course, it is only a partial window. People can lie, cheat or deceive us. Indeed, one of the biggest issues we humans face is the extent to which the things people share with us is what they actually think. Because people can filter their thoughts, body language can provide clues to what is going on behind the words that are being said. This is the basic principle of the TV show Lie to Me. In this vein, my wife reacted to Rubio’s dry mouth as indicative of him not really believing what he was saying (see here for a similar take—although it is an interpretation likely reflecting the bias of a Democrat).

The second reason is that body language has been the primary mode of communication for much longer than verbal language, and like all social mammals, we are built to be extremely sensitive to it. Much research shows that people pay as much or more attention to how things are said than what is said. This is because our communication takes place in a relational matrix, whereby we are sizing up the other and engaging in a constant flow of emotional exchange. When you are in a tense conversation with your lover, you intuitively pay attention to the movements of his eyes or his hand gestures or his body posture. These things frame the nature of the communication in terms of affiliation, dominance, sincerity and a host of other variables. Consider, for example, after watching apes interact for less than five minutes, a group of kindergarteners was readily able to identify which of the apes were dominant and which were submissive. We track the body language to track the socio-emotional tenor of the relationship. In the current example, one might see Rubio’s dry mouth as indicative of being nervous and feeling less than confident about his position.

The transcripts of Rubio’s speech carry the content of his justifications and these should be assessed for their validity independent of the way they were presented, as they reflect a particular ideology about the State of the Union that many people hold. At the same time, because we are human, we inevitably interpret the whole act of communication, a point Rubio has clearly been reminded about.