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Presidential Debates and Non Verbal Communication

Global Immersions Recruiting - Monday, October 22, 2012


Tonight is the final of three presidential debates between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. While their talking points, zingers and trillion dollar figures may be lost in translation to many of us, one method of communication is understood globally: body language. Body language does have several “dialects". For example, American’s “O.K” sign made by touching the thumb and pointer finger together is considered vulgar in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. For a greeting, some cultures hug, while others bow, kiss or give a handshake. But we all understand the meaning behind a smile, a frown or even more subconscious ways of speaking without talking. The body language of the two candidates during the debate will be discussed and analyzed at length, and for good reason; psychologists and sociologists widely believe that a majority of conversation in all cultures is interpreted through body language.  What will Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama say through their body language in this debate? You’ll have to watch to find out! But before you do, keep reading to find out how important analyzing body language is during such a high profile debate.  

The first presidential debate broadcast on T.V was in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy, and it serves as a perfect example of how body language can make or break a candidate.  People who listened on the radio were sure Nixon was the clear winner, while those who watched it on T.V believed Kennedy won by a long shot. We all know Kennedy ended up winning the election, so why was the audience so polarized? Because while Nixon sounded good, he looked awful! Nixon was pale, sweaty and clearly anxious next to the young, handsome and confident Kennedy. Nixon had a grey, ill fitting suit and refused makeup, while Kennedy had a dark, well fitting suit and allowed makeup artists to touch up his already tanned skin, fresh back from campaigning in sunny California. Kennedy confidently looked right into the camera while Nixon never settled his gaze, clearly unsure what to do in front of the new T.V medium. Overall, while people may have agreed more with what Nixon said, Kennedy’s way of presenting himself made him the winner to those who saw it in person.

Other famous missteps in body language during presidential debates include Al Gore’s “miscalculated” eye rolls that made him seem condescending and disrespectful to his opponent George W. Bush. Bush the elder kept impatiently glancing at his watch and looked uncomfortable during his “town house” style debate with Clinton. Because of his body language he was criticized that he looked like he didn't want to be there. Obama faced similar criticism after the first of this year’s debates, with his lackluster responses and bland tone. With millions of people watching these debates, what you say is just as important as how you look while you say it.


Scientific research and theory into nonverbal communication first became popular after it was introduced to the public with the 1872 publication of Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Since then, the way we speak without speaking has been analyzed extensively and it has become obvious how much we interpret through nonverbal communication, much of it subconsciously. There are eight main types on nonverbal communication, facial expression, gestures, tone, posture, proxemics (personal space), eye contact, haptics (body contact) and appearance. While the social norms are different culture to culture, for example Italians are famous for excessive gestures and Americans are known for strong eye contact but don’t like touching, all of these types of non verbal communication are used and interpreted, both consciously and unconsciously, across cultures.

Watch the presidential debates tonight and analyze what the candidates are saying through their appearance and body language. Even the color of their ties will be widely debated for interpretation! If you’re a visitor, talk with your hosts about how body language is used in your home country and if you've had any difficulty understanding American body language. Remember to share your thoughts on body language and the debate with Global Immersions! 

sources: about.com, denverpost.com 

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