03 June, 2016

Reading between the gestures

By Sriram Sriraman

Politicians are experts in narrativising. If we are to genuinely gauge their true intentions, we could do well to study their body language. As they say, actions betray truth so much better than words.

In an age when most of what we hear from or read about the political class is carefully worded with a specific outcome in mind, the reading of body language remains a key tool in understanding attitudes and subtle biases. It is strange that the media, involved in reporting events and forming public opinion, hasn’t explored the possibility of taking advantage of this aspect of psychology. Many governments have a functioning team that is involved in understanding and reading body languages of top leaders. The U.S. spends $300,000 a year to study the body languages of top politicians, including that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While this may be a pittance when compared to what countries spend on key budgetary elements such as Defence or Education, it nonetheless shows an intent to invest in the study of behavioural psychoanalysis.

Many studies have shown that over two-thirds of our communication is nonverbal in nature. And it came to the fore, for the first time, when mainstream politics played out on a television during the Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy debate in 1960. Here’s what happened: the debate brought out two distinct reactions. People who watched the debate on a television thought Kennedy had the upper hand while those who listened to it on a radio thought Nixon fared better. Why did this happen? Before the debate, Nixon had been hospitalised. Alan Schroeder, in his bookThe Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High Risk TV, notes that Nixon “arrived in Chicago ill, overfatigued, and otherwise unprepared to meet his rival.” This episode alarmed the political class. They realised that the container and not the content, made more impact.

Words lie, body doesn’t

From a journalist's perspective, among the many practical uses of reading body language, the most important one is the ability it gives you to spot deception. The key to spotting deception is understanding the way our body invariably gives away clues when we’re misrepresenting facts or lying.

In this interview by Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong admitted to doping and that it had played a role in his seven victories in the Tour de France. He tries to be cooperative and lets her know that he’s ready for the interview. But, clearly, he is having trouble undergoing the ensuing vulnerability. While his tone and surface-level demeanour suggests he is composed and cool, he gets caught at every turn if you delve a bit deeper.

In the beginning he’s seen crossing his legs and in a posture that psychologist call the “figure 4”. This posture is a confrontative one — predominantly defensive in this case. The crossing of the legs is a manifestation of our subconscious influence, originating from the need to protect ourselves, particularly the crotch. But in this case, the person does both -- the spreading out of the legs, a sign of aggression and dominance, and hiding his crotch with his hands — indicating that he is approaching the interview with caution. But as the interview progresses, he ‘clamps’ his legs, signalling his intent to be stubborn and fight it out.

When Oprah asks him to be candid and begins asking him the “questions people around the world have been waiting for you to answer”, he’s constantly seen ‘pursing’ his lips, a clear sign that there’s a sense of discomfort. It might also suggest that he is withholding or suppressing information.

He’s also seen covering his mouth while the questions were being asked. The hand-on-the-mouth gesture says he clearly doesn’t approve of what Oprah’s asking him — in a way, saying “please stop talking!” In fact, the three gestures — hand-on-the-mouth, hand-on-the-ears and hand-on-the-eyes — are variations of the same subconscious drive that wants to ward off the uncomfortable implications coming from the other person. There’s enough in the first three to four minutes of the video to suggest where the interview was heading.

Looking beyond the usual

The media hasn’t explored the possibility of all the information it could gather if it applied the study of body language as a tool for gaining insights. We’ve always concentrated on what is being or has been said and never on what’s not said or what politicians inadvertently tell us in the form of nonverbal cues. Here’s an example.

What could possibly go wrong when two of the world’s most powerful leaders come face-to-face for a handshake? The key to understanding the subtle tension that lies beneath the surface is to read their respective body languages carefully.

Here’s what happens: Before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives at the scene, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is seen waiting upright, with almost military discipline, both hands dignifiedly behind his back. Obama steps out of his car and walks over to Putin, his hands already in position for a handshake. Obama then leans into the handshake, which goes on for a few seconds. Obama then finishes it with a small pat on Putin’s arm. As Obama walks into the building, Putin is looking down at the ground.

Now, let’s break this fleeting episode down and try to understand what was going on beneath the surface.

Obama goes into handshake-mode as soon he gets down from his car, making clear his intention he wants to dominate the proceedings.

Further, he leans into the handshake, making himself big and the more prominent of the two. Obama’s physical stature also helps him win this battle of the handshakes.

Then comes the power move — a small pat on Putin’s arms, reinforcing his intent to be the dominant player. The pat — signifying commendation or encouragement — is always delivered by a person in a position of power, who is secure enough with himself to offer reinforcement to others.

Putin looks at the ground while Obama’s leaving the scene. The eyes and the legs are the biggest indicators of interest, they follow the subject of interest. And here, Putin almost instantaneously looks down at the ground after the chat, another defensive move, signalling a drop in confidence levels. When someone looks down after breaking eye-contact, it is either a sign that they are intimidated or they accept the superiority of the other person.

Now, just to be clear, this exercise of reading body language to understand a situation more deeply is by no means good enough to stand the test as evidence in a court of law. But it can be very useful to use the insights of body language to gauge thought processes and as a secondary measure to verify claims.

Creating a perception

Some politicians are combative. Some are just plain honest and straightforward, and have an uncanny ability to put the interviewer on the backfoot. A successful interview tries to establish a platform where the interviewee comes forth with honest replies. The process of building this platform is often the most difficult part of any interview. This 1978 interview, involving former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, shows how the media can leverage a better understanding of body language to lay this platform more effectively. Here, she deftly manages to wade through some tough questions and puts the interviewer on the defensive. And she gains in strength as the interview moves along.

The interviewer clearly fails to establish this connection and allows Ms. Gandhi to force him to rethink his notions, evident from his repeated gestures — mostly his hand-to-face ones. Halfway through the interview, Indira Gandhi gets the better of him.

His hand frequently goes to his chin and mouth. And it gets worse, the frequency and duration of his gestures increase as the interview goes along. At 01:25 he strikes an interesting pose — a mild tilting of the head supported by his hand and covering his mouth at the same time. This gesture summarises the entire interview. The tilt is not exaggerated — only light. But it indicates that while he is clearly intent on hearing her out, he is finding it difficult to take in her words because she is destabilising his ideas. Post that, there are many instances where he’s constantly seen touching his face.

While he might have got answers for his question, she had the upper hand throughout the interview.

While journalists increasingly go about using technology to expose the masks placed on reality, the study of body language gives us a great chance of getting to the bottom of any story. The body, a product of evolution, has proven to be immune to surface developments, and this allows it to provide a perspective that reflects reality — which can help the media verify claims and to know the subject beyond the verbiage. More than anything, it is a great leveller. Who wouldn't want to see what’s beyond the strong defences of our high-profile leaders?

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