When President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama met for the first time in front of the White House, they didn’t take questions from reporters. But as far as body-language experts were concerned, the two men said volumes.
"Physically, [Obama] was definitely in charge there," says Allan Pease, author of "The Definitive Book of Body Language." Obama grabbed Bush’s upper arm during their handshake, which is a "control gesture."
Pease says Obama was also in charge when it came time to go into the White House, leading Bush in with a pat on the back, basically saying "welcome to my home."
"President-elect Obama has his head raised to make eye contact with the president," signaling "I am equal in status," according to Susan K. Abrams, a corporate and political image consultant at www.politicalicon.com.
Via email, Abrams said Obama showed a readiness to engage with the president, while Bush’s initial stance suggested he was being territorial.
"The president stands his ground and firmly positions his feet in a stance that suggests 'this is my territory' and extends his hand (leans slightly forward) to shake hands but only so far, which requires President-elect Obama to reach forward and move forward to accept greeting."
But Abrams says, as a whole, the gestures between Obama and Bush communicate "the civility of the relationship at this point."
So, was all of this body language subconscious? Yes and no, says Pease.
Some of it is the natural way in which Obama and Bush interact. But Pease suspects at least part of the White House meeting was carefully choreographed.
"They had the same suit and the same tie and shirt ... I mean, identical," Pease says, adding that it probably was not a coincidence.
"To create an atmosphere of unity ... you would dress the guys the same and get them to look the same and move the same way, which is what they did when they moved through the West Wing."
But psychologist Jana N. Martin cautions against reading too much into actions alone. Martin conducts training on verbal and nonverbal communication.
While there’s no question image experts are employed to refine body language and nonverbal messages, "communication comes as a package," Martin says. "Just like I wouldn’t judge someone solely on their words, I’m not going to judge someone solely on their body language."
For Martin, it’s all about context. Judging someone’s body-language clues is most accurate when evaluated in combination with what the person is saying.
Nevertheless, our experts had some words of advice, in case you want to make a good impression without saying a word.
"Eye contact is really important. There have been a lot of studies done of people who are dishonest or tell lies – they often avert their gaze to one side or another," says Martin.
She also advises coming close to the person you are greeting (but not so close that you invade their personal space), nodding your head as an affirmative gesture, and offering a genuine smile. But a word of caution: "A fake smile is worse than no smile at all."
Pease suggests keeping your body open, with palms out and arms uncrossed. And when shaking hands, keep your palms straight and only apply the same amount of pressure as the other person.
Of course, only Obama and Bush can say whether their handshake shared the same amount of pressure. But now that you’re armed with all this body-language insight, why not take another look at the video and evaluate their encounter for yourself?
6 months ago