Obama, Romney, debatesThe phrase “body language” or nonverbal communication often gets tossed around. From public speaking to a first date, our movements and facial expressions say a lot about our feelings and intentions. Now, as we enter into political debate season, politicians’ body language will be under just as much scrutiny as their remarks, and if the candidates aren’t careful, they might misspeak without saying a word.

Most researchers conclude that human communication is only 30 to 40 percent verbal and 60 to 70 percent of our interactions are composed of paralinguistic cues, or silent signals we give off unintentionally. Think of it as a speaker or listener’s personal interpretation of what they’re saying or hearing. We can all relate to the experience of yawning when we’re bored or (conversely) making direct eye contact when a conversation interests us, but these movements are just as much a part of the conversation as the words said.   

The study of body language is known as kinesics, a branch of anthropology developed by Ray Birdwhistell in the mid-20th century to de-verbalize human communication. Birdwhistell believed that no movement of the human body is accidental and that all of our gestures, down to the tiniest blink, are subject to a grammar that can be studied and analyzed, much in the same way that we pore over semicolons here at Dictionary.com.

To illustrate a few kinesic touchstones, the most overt sign a person can conjure without making direct physical contact is to cross their arms in front of their chest. This gesture implies that for whatever reason, the person wishes to put a barrier between his or herself and others. Granted, the movement could simply mean that the person’s arms are cold, but there’s a chance it means they feel threatened. Unfocused eyes or tilting of the head can show disinterest or a lack of understanding. Though in situations where people feel comfortable, perhaps when they are among friends or family, tilting of the head can imply trust because it exposes the neck, a comparatively vulnerable part of the body.

In the upcoming debates, President Obama and Governor Romney will be trying to use body language that implies power and confidence. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy emphasizes the importance of expansive postures that show dominance and command by opening the frame. Politicians often hold the sides of the podium when debating, not only to show passion for their argument but to open their shoulders as well. One of the riskiest gestures a debater can make is to touch their face. Unnecessary attention drawn to the face suggests that a person might be lying or withholding information, excessive blinking or an unblinking stare can also have the same effect.

According to Cuddy, the opening handshake between the candidates will set the tone for the presidential debate tonight. Whoever initiates the handshake will subconsciously start the debate in a position of dominance, and it will be up to the candidates to either hold that lead or fight their way back to the front.

Based on what you’ve read here, share your reactions to the Obama-Romney debate. Do you notice body language in your life? What paralinguistic gestures affect you and why?


  1. Random -  December 30, 2012 - 8:44 pm

    This article was great; my dad’s always telling me to make eye contact, not cross my arms, don’t yawn, ect. I’m also getting ready to go on a trip to Japan were body language is much diffrent, but even though they are on the other side of the world I notice their body language is related to ours due to nautral human reactions to the enviorment we do without noticing.

  2. Mark -  December 13, 2012 - 1:53 am

    A liar can build confidence by elevating their situations and esteem, albeit based on false information and mistaken beliefs in other’s minds.
    Thus a Romney can build a profile and attack the confidence of any opposer.
    Scammers do it, and Wrongney is a lying scammer with success at it.
    Not enough to become President, but it got him a long way in life unfortunately

  3. mary -  November 24, 2012 - 3:31 pm

    im happy that obamma won :-)

  4. potatochips74321 -  November 7, 2012 - 2:24 pm

    sigh. you asked for four more years, you got it.at your children and grandchildren’s expense.

  5. Control.F -  November 6, 2012 - 4:35 pm

    So far Ctrl F indicates Romney is written 68 times.. Obama is written 45 times
    Negative comments outweigh positive comments
    What does this suggest?

  6. SHayes -  October 24, 2012 - 11:39 am

    My body language fits my mood, but when I’m depressed or sad I hide by “acting” happy. I don’t like ppl asking me every hour are you ok? what’s wrong? It goes on for about 8-9 hours. And that’s only on a school day. >:0 I eventually tell anyone who opens their mouth to ask to just shut it and walk away. :)
    P.s. sorry for all the comments on the blogs, but being stck on a computer for 3 hours doing school work bores you. lol

  7. Kayla -  October 22, 2012 - 7:40 pm

    Wouldn’t it be cool if we communicated solely through body language? (I mean: shrug, blink, blink, twitch, head tilt) Well, at least, that would be cool if we still had a written language but never spoke.

  8. Alasandi -  October 17, 2012 - 9:34 am

    Great body language tidbits. Different percentages are used than what is commonly associated with communication. Ergo, I would have appreciated a data source or link to more information.

  9. Kyleigh -  October 14, 2012 - 3:14 pm

    You know, Natalie, I hate when people try to correct grammar when it’s right in the first place.
    This is the actual sentence: ‘much in the same way that we pore over semicolons here at Dictionary.com.’
    This is the way you were thinking it should say: ‘much in the same way that we pour over semicolons here at Dictionary.com.’
    The first sentence is correct, see?
    Good day to you, fine madam.

  10. Azam -  October 12, 2012 - 11:36 pm

    I believe It!

  11. Greg Coker -  October 11, 2012 - 9:41 am

    Obama kept looking down as Romney spoke…it was if he didn’t want to be there. Yet, after the debate he cut loose, why? Romney wasn’t around to counter his accusations! Very brave.

  12. Alex Fossa -  October 11, 2012 - 7:15 am

    I had heard these types of statistics before and take a real interest in body language and fascial expressions. I think it’s really interesting how much you can give away about yourself or read in another person without even saying or hearing any words.

    At the moment though I don’t get much human interaction to practise reading body language as I spend most of my days stuck in Reading Data Centre setting up colocation packages for our clients

  13. Joy -  October 11, 2012 - 5:29 am

    Every movement, however slight, speaks through us to others. Our brain, our processor is processing when we are not aware. Most of our movements are patterns learned from childhood. Many of our movements are subconscious and depend on the feelings we are experiencing which in turn will give the people around them information about their present status. We are always changing. Yes, there are some basic understandings about body language but take the person that wrote in about teaching their children to cross their arms for being still, not fidgeting, etc. That is a very smart thing to teach a young child. However, one can see where that child grown up may show the world they do not want you near his/her space.
    It is very important, let me say this again………. it is very important to use all the information our brain receives and make good choices based on what we know, our world model, our experience, etc. We must look at a whole person and that is just not possible in a short time- for instance, watching a debate. Too many factors at work- stress, fatigue,
    can list a hundred more. We have to be careful not to “judge” another based on what we see. We should not judge at all but we do because we are human.
    As a nurse of many years, I have learned to care for the person before me with whole heart, assume they have had many sadnesses and hopefully many joys, and that they just like me, want to be loved and cared for.
    We are all the same. So let us look at body language when we interact with others, hear their voice, their words and make decisions about how we interact with them based on the information we receive and process, but we do not know exactly how that person really feels, so we do the best we can.
    The main thing is not to judge what we see. We just might be wrong.

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