How Politicians Manipulate You Without Saying a Word

It’s what they’re not telling you.

Politicians spend a lot of time trying to get elected. When they’re not campaigning or selling yard signs, they’re slandering their opponents with fear-mongering advertisements.

We’re used to these tactics, and most of us can separate the truth from twisted words in dramatized TV ads.

However, what you may not realize is that politicians are, and have been for decades, manipulating you with another tool: their bodies.

Body language (noun): the gestures, movements, and mannerisms by which a person or animal communicates with others. — Merriam Webster

Body language is the science of nonverbal communication. It’s everything we tell each other without actually saying a word. For instance, take a look at the picture below:

Even by just glancing at the photo, you can tell the woman is angry, even furious — but how? There is no thought bubble or label to indicate that she’s feeling this particular emotion. Yet, there is just something about her that is explicitly angry.

This is where body language comes in. The woman’s raised fists, comically-wide eyes, and clenched teeth are all nonverbal cues that we, the audience, interpret as anger. We don’t need a caption to tell us she’s angry because she’s telling us herself.

Above, it’s the same woman, but she appears happy. Once again, there is no label to indicate this, but her large smile, raised eyebrows and “dance-y” arm gestures tell us she is.

We don’t necessarily mean to interpret nonverbal cues, but we do — all the time. We “read” people, and we make assumptions based on what we interpret from their gestures and expressions (of course, we aren’t always accurate, but it’s the effort that counts).

Most of the time, the body language signals we send out and interpret from others is done subconsciously. (Ever been in a conversation and then get the feeling that the other person wants to leave? They might not say anything, but their body gives them away: they might keep glancing at the clock, position themselves towards the door, or tap their foot.)

In some cases, body language can be used deliberately. The Fox Network drama, Lie To Me, shed light on this idea: the main character, Dr. Cal Lightman, used his expertise in body language to analyze suspects and determine if they were guilty.

However, nonverbal cues can also be used to intentionally control how other people perceive you. Politicians, for example, are experts at this nonverbal manipulation.

Sarah Palin points her index finger upward to add emphasis to her words, and to portray confidence and authority to the audience.

Politicians get coached on body language. They’re told what kind of gestures make them appear confident, what expressions turn people off, what makes them look sincere — anything that can help them win people over.

Granted, when I say politicians, I’m mostly talking about your big-name positions like presidents, presidential candidates, governors, and senators. Chances are, the soccer mom who’s gunning for a spot on the School Board isn’t spending hours practicing her wave.

For politicians who are looking to get elected into office — especially presidential candidates — portraying the “right” kind of body language is critical. Candidates who appear unsure of themselves or untrustworthy are less likely to win debates or get voted into office.

After the 2012 First Presidential debate, body language coach, Carol Kinsey Goman, gave insight on what led to Romney’s victory against Obama (and what each candidate should be aware of in the future):

When I coach executives for on-stage presentations, I find that large gestures work very well. But on video or television, they can quickly go from looking passionate and explicit to over-emotional and erratic. Especially when hands go above the shoulders…Romney’s coaches may have picked up on other nonverbal cues that indicate a high level of energy getting close to looking out of control — including wiping the sweat off his upper lip before the closing remarks, stepping back and forth — foot to foot, and bouncing shoulders as he goes up and down on this toes. — Goman, “What Their Body Language Coaches Are Telling the Presidential Candidates” from Forbes.com

Even if Romney didn’t mean a word of what he said in the debate, his enthusiastic gestures swayed the audience. This isn’t to say his body language was solely responsible for his victory. It isn't mind control. When it comes down to it, a weak argument or speech can do more damage than avoiding eye contact or hunching your shoulders.

Besides Romney, Former President Bill Clinton is another example of a politician who has excelled at the art of body language. Sam Harrison, in an article for Fast Company, analyzed how Bill Clinton’s use of body language helps him manipulate the audience:

Clinton’s best visual aids are his hands. His arm movements are open and wide, relaying an image of accessibility and authenticity.

To guide the audience’s emotion and attention, he often extends his hands with palms facing up or out: “Let me ask you something [palms up]…” or “Folks, this is serious [palms out]…”

He’ll also overlap hands in front of chest to reinforce intimate statements such as, “This is personal to me…” He offers a small, knowing smile when saying, “and that brings me to health care…”

He raises his chin in defiance when saying, “let’s take a look at what’s actually happened so far…”

Clinton bites his bottom lip with frustration after stating, “and they refused to compromise…”

And he squints his eyes with determination when delivering lines like, “democracy does not have to be a blood sport…”

— Sam Harrison, “3 Techniques Bill Clinton Uses To Wow an Audience”, fastcompany.com

Clinton’s pointed finger and stern expression tell us that he’s authoritative and confident in his words.

Body language hasn’t stopped Clinton from facing public backlash, but the control he wields over his movement made Clinton appear personable and charming.

Of course, not all politicians are able to master the art of body language like Bill Clinton.

Donald Trump, for instance, tries to convey powerful gestures, but isn’t always consistent. His movements, at times, can appear awkward or forced — making him look insincere.

The raised fist is a favorite gesture of President Trump’s. It’s used to convey solidarity and unity.

A quick google search will yield hundreds of results detailing Donald Trump’s most awkward body language blunders. It’s clear that while he is being coached, Trump is not enough of a practiced politician to keep the rouse up all the time.

Coached body language can only go so far. People fire off hundreds of nonverbal cues at a time, and regardless of what confident or friendly gestures they perform, their true feelings still may shine through.

Although his expression appears almost confrontational, Trump opens his arms and leans toward the audience — almost as if to say, “Trust me. Trust what I’m saying.”

Regardless of a politician’s ability to successfully convey positive body language, what’s important is to understand that they are being coached by someone. Your opinion, whether you realize it or not, may be influenced by the gestures or expressions you see.

Sometimes, it’s what they’re not telling you.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats. pricelindy@gmail.com

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