Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tips for Handling Body Language and Space

It’s Saturday, four days after the first of three important presidential debates. Since Wednesday I’ve been mulling over whether to comment on the first debate—and if so, where to begin and end.

Is another opinion needed since so much has already been written: advice for both candidates on everything from personal style to congratulations on the lack of the expected gaffes? That is, of course, with the exception of Romney’s threats to de-fund PBS and take down Big Bird!

As soon as Mitt Romney made those statements, I shuddered. It’s not smart to threaten Big Bird’s existence. He’s a character beloved and so deeply entrenched in children’s television as to be a permanent part of Americana! Even Peggy Noonan warned in her WSJ editorial “Romney Deflates the President” to beware, as Big Birds will be showing up to heckle and distract at Romney political events.

Romney’s Big Bird comment provided comic relief as my debate viewing got off to a rocky start, which I should have expected. Even before the clock started, I was put off by President Obama’s body language. (And it wasn’t the first time.) How people handle and manipulate space is an important aspect of nonverbal communication and as such deserves some commentary, for it was a significant factor throughout the debate.

Territorial jockeying for space began immediately when the two candidates took the stage. With a wide smile and strong stride, President Obama entered from the right. He strode confidently past his podium – into the personal space* of Romney’s podium – to shake his opponent’s hand.

The President never, if he can help it, simply offers a traditional one-handed greeting. He usually leans in and extends his right hand to shake while simultaneously using his other hand to grasp his opponent’s upper arm.

This technique is often used to gain physical and visual dominance. By employing this technique, the President effectively entered Romney’s two-foot private bubble of personal space. Obama’s two-handed shake should be viewed as an aggressive act, as it is a wrap-around intended to grab the dominant physical position and perhaps intimidate before the debate begins.

I’ve watched President Obama use this same two-handed greeting with political figures and world leaders. Each time I witness it, I cringe because it’s a flagrant violation of another’s personal space and generally not well received by the person experiencing this locked-in greeting. Besides, who wants a sweaty hand on the sleeve of a perfectly pressed suit jacket?

Although Governor Romney and President Obama are close in height and weight, The President’s initial two-handed greeting was effective in visually diminishing Romney.  The gesture was calculated to establish control and from a visual perspective was very effective!

President Obama’s use of body language gave him a head start, but he quickly lost his advantage. Once the debate was underway, he seemed to shrink into his assigned spot and rarely (through eye contact or otherwise) left the safe space of his lectern. In fact, he seemed to hunker down into his own zone as he was clearly unprepared for the rhetorical and intellectual demands of debating Mitt Romney.

*personal distance is between two and four feet in most of the Western world

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