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Nonverbal Observations From The Vice Presidential Debate

I decided to wait a day before commenting on last night’s Vice Presidential debate because I wanted to see how the press was going to report the exchange between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.  I wanted to compare the perception that viewers had of the candidates and then look at the body language that influenced those assessments.  Since a great deal of attention and reporting has been focused on Joe Biden’s performance, we can take a look at how he communicated non-verbally.

The response has been split down the middle, depending on the political affiliations the various news organizations have.  Depending on which website you may have read, the headlines either read that Joe Biden “showed his teeth” or that “he was arrogant and unbound.”  Let’s break down the nonverbal elements for each side of the coin.

The Dominance

Many comments have made note of the verbal elements of the debate and cite Joe Biden as he confidently quoted facts and often talked over Paul Ryan to bring the camera back to him.  When looking at his behavior from a nonverbal perspective, much of the dominance that people saw was a result of the bold lecturing body language gestures that he used throughout the debate.  His gestures were actually quite bold, which is in contrast to the way presidents often address an audience.  If you look at how President Obama often uses his hands during a talk, he will form a circle with his thumb and forefinger.  President Clinton became notorious for gesturing with his thumb instead of pointing with his forefinger.  Many times throughout the debate, Vice President Biden pointed directly towards the camera and the moderator to make his point.  At least once, he got the attention of every current and former Marine who was watching as he used the patented Drill Instructor’s “knife hand” (pictured at the top) to drive a point home.

The reason Joe Biden’s gestures are considered bold is because often people who are giving presentations will soften the way they point towards the crowd.  Getting pointed at probably brings up memories of a teacher, a parent, a relative, a bully, or someone from the past who pointed at you and told you “this is the way it is going to be.”  People don’t like to be lectured.  Good presenters often soften that gesture (the way Presidents do) because it gets their point across, shows they are in command of their facts and authoritative, but doesn’t insult the crowd at the same time.

For a majority of the presentation Joe Biden’s behavior (both verbally and non-verbally) certainly fell into the Dominant Cluster.  But at the same time, you can compare this overall performance to the end of the debate when his behavior changed and temporarily shifted into the submissive cluster.  As he began his closing arguments (watch the video here, start at 1:27:09 for closing remarks), he failed to make eye contact with the camera or moderator and led into his remarks while looking down, talking more softly, and stumbling through his words. Take a look at the Dominance vs. Submissive clusters to see if there are other elements that you can pick up throughout the debate.

The Arrogance

As I mentioned, the other half of the audience probably viewed his behavior as arrogant as they saw the over-talking as counter-productive to a true debate of ideas, and the “my friend” comments as patronizing.  Instead of looking at the verbal channel, if we were to have watched the debate with the volume muted, it is easy to understand this perception as well.

The split screen cameras facilitated these observations as they allowed the audience to see the continuous smirks and contempt flash across the Vice President’s face in response to Paul Ryan’s comments.  Observing his blatant contempt doesn’t require any training, as Joe Biden didn’t bother himself with any attempt to conceal it or his laughter.  He wanted the world to see the polarity between the parties and to see his disrespect towards contradictory opinions.

Another observation that could lead a viewer to this conclusion was Joe Biden’s reaction to comments about the unemployment rate in his hometown of Scranton, PA.  As Paul Ryan quoted the rise in unemployment in Scranton, Biden reacted reflexively by leaning back (Proxemic Push) and crossing his arms across his chest (uncomfortable cluster) as he recognized the threat posed by the hard numbers.

Why Should You Care

If you’ve ever been through a recruiting or sales course, you have probably been told that customers don’t buy because of the product, they buy because of a connection with the person sitting across the table from them.  I would assume that for any voter not formally affiliated with one party or another, their decision in this election will come down to how they perceive the candidates.  Whether Joe Biden’s actions were perceived as dominant or arrogant, ultimately comes down to the eye of the beholder.  The science says that you can classify this behavior in one of these two categories, but the art comes in when determining if it was the appropriate response for the debate setting.

See other indicators of contempt or dominance, let us know.

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