Presidential Body Language: A Microsociology

Both major presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, cannot miss out on the Alfred Smith dinner, which sells expensive dinners to business people and political leaders to fund Catholic charities “to support the neediest children of the Archdiocese in New York, regardless of race, creed, or color” (Wikipedia, Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner). In such a high-profile event, the charity tends to be able to raise more money, so they raked in 6 million dollars in one night. Clinton and Trump both attended the event and were strategically seated next to Cardinal Thomas Dolan.

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Source: Q13Fox

Both of the presidential candidates deliberately look relaxed, as if they were enjoying the dinner. When Trump was called to do the speech, he had to go past Clinton to get on the podium and even tapped Clinton on the shoulder. The speeches themselves were entertaining to read, as they were knocking each other for their weaknesses. Trump called Clinton corrupt (Trump transcript), and Clinton called Trump out for his bad temper and bigotry (Clinton transcript). Clinton’s speech reads more self-deprecating and self-critical than Donald Trump’s, who even in a scripted speech displays greater level of boastfulness.

The more interesting part of the dinner was when the two shook hands, which is a simple gesture, which they tried to avoid during the presidential debate. It seems to be that the dinner was considered to be a more entertaining event, and they could let their guard down somewhat.

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Source: CNN

What is absolutely key is to observe the body language in this brief interaction. Clinton’s body is positioned as far as possible away from Trump. She can make this possible by stretching her right arm as long as possible. She is not as tall as Trump and can afford to stretch her arms and still catch his hand. The upper arm is slightly tilted downward and the lower arm is parallel to the ground. Her face is only visible sideways, and her mouth appears to produce a smile, but upon closer look she is not smiling as much as feigning the smile. One might interpret this fake smile with teeth clearly visible with the feeling of disgust or discomfort. This emotion fits well with why she would want to position her body as far away from Trump as possible. I interpret her body language to reveal her desire to end the interaction as quickly as possible. Clinton is known to have many spin doctors help her out with what to say, how to craft responses and how to behave, but, surprisingly, she is showing her emotions quite strongly in this direct interaction with her opponent.

Now let’s look at Trump. Trump does not have any proximity issues. His upper arm is almost parallel to his body and orthogonal to the ground, and only his lower arm is stretched out, which suggests that he has no problem to reduce the physical distance with Clinton. Notice also that his body is leaning forward, which is in opposition to the stiff and straight Clinton posture. It is not clear whether Trump genuinely relishes the interaction, but he is certainly not afraid. This might be a reflection of a gender dominance pattern, and we have certainly heard much about Trump and his relationship with women. Trump’s face has a rather neutral expression, so I can’t read much emotion into the face. It should be noted, however, that he squints with his eyes, which might reveal a feeling of suspicion. Unlike Clinton, Trump does not even bother to fake a smile. Meeting an opponent for the highest office in the country is likely less pleasant than meeting one of the many Miss Universes he is used to hang out with.

What can’t be read from the image is how tight the squeeze is during the handshake, but Clinton’s female hands are clearly smaller than Trump’s male hands, which allows him to surround her hand completely, while hers rests firmly in his palms. I don’t know whether this is normal for cross-gender hand-shakes or whether there is a typical male-dominance pattern that is involved here.

The second photo with the handshake stands in stark contrast to the first photo, where the two candidates were sitting apart from each other and could enjoy their dinner physically separated. The distance allows them to hide their true emotions, and put in a big laugh after each joke. It is the handshake, which is the prototype of the direct confrontation, which reveals their true selves.

One should not think that because one of the two will occupy the highest office in the country that they have lost their humanity. They are still human beings, whose real feelings and sentiments get revealed in their micro-social interactions.

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