(Author’s note: I was asked by the French newspaper Vingt Minutes to comment on Donald Trump’s nonverbal body language, as revealed in 12 photographs taken during his early presidency. [To see the illustrated French article, please click HERE.])
Nonverbal communication is a process of sending and receiving wordless messages by means of facial expressions, gaze, gestures, postures, hairdos, clothing, and tone of voice. I think the following nonverbal cues will have a great deal to “say” in Donald Trump’s White House:
We emit hair messages through the style, color, shape, and sheen of the cylindrical, filamentous projections that cover our scalp. In mammals generally, clean hair is a noticed sign of high status, good health, and careful grooming. Unlike momentary-voiced words and phrases, hair transmits in a continuous fashion all day long.
The glowing yellow hue and gravity-defying shape of Mr. Trump’s hairdo say, “See me--I am unique--I am HERE!” His conspicuous tresses make surrealistic statements, and threaten to crash upon his brow like waves from the Banzai Pipeline. Visually, the surging head of hair dominates attention and is all that seems to matter.
A key to decoding Trump hair is found in the trademark “gimmicky” mustache of surrealist artist, Salvador Dali. (To see Dali’s mustache, please click HERE.) Like the dramatic, curvilinear waxed hairs of Dali’s upper lip, Trump’s flamboyant hairdo seems to defy gravity. The meaning of both men’s eccentric-hair displays is designed to announce a most wonderful presence: “ME.” As Dali enthused, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali” (Meisler 2005). And, as Trump crowed on The Tonight Show, “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, If I’m ever wrong” (Anonymous 2017).
According to the Mayo Clinic, men with Narcissistic personality disorders display an inflated sense of self-importance. However, beneath the seeming overconfidence, according to the Clinic, “. . . lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” Donald Trump continues to flaunt his signature hairdo in the White House, and the Dali-esque importance for which it stands, namely: ME!
Lips are muscular, fleshy, hairless folds surrounding the mouth opening, which may be moved to express an emotion, pronounce a word, or plant a kiss. Lips are among the most emotionally expressive parts of the human body. That they are so closely linked to emotions, feelings, and moods (through special visceral nerves) makes them incredibly gifted communicators that always bear watching.
In public, Mr. Trump’s lips are chronically everted in what I call a “pugnacious pout.” The pout, which grows more visible as he argues, reveals a combative, belligerent mood. The paramount message of lip-pursing is thoughtful dissentience: "I disagree." The tightly screwed-out lips of the universal “pig snout” expression show that a listener has gone beyond the pout of uncertainty to a more energetically dissenting frame of mind. As a mood sign, pursed lips reflect the presence of an alternative verbal reply likely forming in the brain's primary speech center, known as Broca's area.
Donald Trump’s jaw bone (or mandible) is relatively large, squared, and suggestive of masculine strength. When he deals with others face-to-face, his chin muscle--the mentalis, which everts the lower lip as it puckers and dimples the surface of his smooth-shaven chin--noticeably flexes, contracts, and bulges outward. Innervated by the emotional facial nerve (Cranial VII) mentalis is, like the lip muscles, highly volatile and demonstrative of emotion. Its prominent contraction and bunched-up shape suggest that, in public, Mr. Trump experiences a chronic state of high emotional arousal. This cue is likely often to be seen in the White House, as it was earlier on The Apprentice, as an unconscious mood sign--or “tell”--revealing how he feels from moment to moment. When visible, the dimpled chin will likely telegraph a disagreeable state of mind, and the answer to your question likely will be “No.”
At press conferences, President Trump telegraphs feelings of superiority by lifting his chin and leaning his head slightly backward. Lifting the chin and looking down the nose are used throughout the world as nonverbal signs of ascendancy, arrogance, and disdain. The prime mover of head-tilt-back is the erector spinae muscle group, components of which reach to the skull's occipital bone to produce extension movements of the head. These deep muscles of the back and neck are basic postural muscles. Since they are innervated by spinal nerves directly--without relay through the more recently evolved cervical and brachial plexuses--we have less voluntary control of our haughty head-and-trunk postures than we have of hand-and-arm gestures. (To see the 2015 CNN article by Elizabeth Cohen in which I liken Mr. Trump's body language to that of former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), please click HERE.)
We may extend all four fingers (the thumb has its own extensor muscles) in a coordinated way, by contracting the forearm's extensor digitorum muscle. Our index finger has an extra forearm muscle (extensor indicis), which enhances neural control of our muscular ability to point. At close quarters, pointing at another human being is almost universally considered to be an aggressive, hostile, or unfriendly act. Indeed, because it focuses so much attention on a recipient, close-quarters pointing is frowned upon throughout the world. Pointing a stick or bone to direct psychic energy is commonly used by sorcerers to cast a spell.
On The Apprentice, actor Donald Trump may be seen pointing aggressively at others to whom he speaks. A quick index-finger point is the gesture of choice for his famous phrase, “You’re fired!” The nonverbal pointing gesture and the spoken words combine in a sense of ultimate finality. Like a basketball going through a hoop--Swoosh!--it’s a done deal.
As second-season Apprentice contestant, Jennifer Crisafulli told the Today Show, “There are little itty-bitty bullets that come flying, invisible bullets, out of his fingers into your chest” (O'Brien 2005, p. 22). As a finger-point recipient, Ms. Crisafulli knew she was fired “for real.”
Based on a past-predicts-future scenario, it is likely that Mr. Trump’s index-finger point will often be seen in the Oval Office. In The Apprentice, the hand gesture and its after-effect (shock, then mute acceptance) were determined by the show’s script. Such automatic scripting will not be as likely, however, in the Trump presidency.
President Trump is often the loudest man in the room. When he speaks in adversarial tones, his upper and lower lips flare, like the flared front end (or “bell”) of a trumpet. The trumpet-like flare amplifies the sound of his voice (“I am here--I am powerful”). As a member of Homo sapiens, Donald Trump is a primate. The world’s loudest land animal, meanwhile, the howler monkey (Alouatta sp.), is also a primate; its lips seriously flare as well. (To see a howler monkey, please click HERE.) Often seen in The Apprentice, Mr. Trump’s pugnacious pout and trumpet-like lips will likely play key audiovisual roles in his nonverbal presidency. In the primate world, loudness may substitute for physical size. Predictably, Donald Trump will continue to use vocal loudness to seem “bigger” than he truly is.
In business today, the handshake is used as a worldwide gesture for meeting, greeting, and sealing a deal. It is a ritualized gripping of another's hand, with one or more up-and-down, sometimes sideways, motions followed by a quick release. Since the fingertips and palmar surface of the hand are exquisitely sensitive, the shake itself can be deeply personal. We instantly feel the warmth or coolness, dryness or moistness, and firmness or weakness of another's grip.
You may have noticed that Mr. Trump’s handshakes are noticeably stronger and longer than the average American or European shake. The strength of Trump’s grip is a display of masculine vigor, emotional intensity, and physical force. Its overlong duration, at times suggestive of captivity, is a display of control: “I am in charge, not you.”
If you travel to France on business, be prepared to shake hands dozens of times a day. Office workers in Paris may shake in the morning to greet, and in the afternoon to say goodbye, to colleagues. Outside vendors and technicians will handshake with everyone present when they enter or leave an office. Contrast this to the Japanese practice of giving few intra-office handshakes in favor of polite bows of the head. In Islamic nations, it is strictly taboo for men to shake hands in public with women. So, while the handshake has become a worldwide gesture in business, it would be wise to learn cultural protocols before forcefully shaking with foreign dignitaries. (To see the contrast between Trump's 19-second shake with Japanese Prime Minister Shinjo Abe [pictured above] and Trump's non-handshake with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, please click HERE.)
While many Trump gestures seem overly powerful, aversive, and unfriendly, there are some attractive and friendly cues as well. One of his most appealing is what I call the “open arms” welcoming sign. In it Mr. Trump drops his arms by his sides, rotates his opened palms forward, and raises his shoulders in a slight shrug. Anatomists call this the “posture of supplication.” Suggestive of uncertainty, the open-arms display is fundamentally diffident, appeasing, and friendly. The open palms invite listeners into an emotionally closer, intimate relationship with the speaker. The shoulder shrug, suggestive of humility, supplication, and submissiveness, disclaims belligerence and, like the opened hand, invites emotional closeness.
Note that Mr. Trump often addresses his audiences with palm-up (supinated) hand gestures to draw listeners in. Uplifted palms suggest a vulnerable or nonaggressive pose that appeals to listeners as allies rather than as rivals or foes. Throughout the world, palm-up cues reflect moods of congeniality, humility, and uncertainty. Accompanied by "palm shows," our ideas, opinions, and remarks may seem patronizing or conciliatory, rather than aggressive or "pointed." Held out to an opponent across a conference table, the palm-up cue may, like an olive branch, enlist support as an emblem of peace. As Charles Darwin noted in 1872, palm-up signs are part of the larger shoulder-shrug display.
You may have heard that off-camera and in person, Mr. Trump is a very pleasant man to be with. What this may look like, nonverbally, could be evident in this photograph of a friendly President speaking to his longtime friend from Israel. Note the relaxed, true or “zygomatic” smile. The zygomatic smile is an expression in which the corners of the mouth curve upward, and the outer corners of the eyes crinkle into crow's-feet. Though we may show a polite grin or “camera smile” at will, the heartfelt true smile is hard to produce on demand. While the former cue may be consciously manipulated (and is subject to deception), the latter is controlled by emotion. Thus, the zygomatic smile is a more accurate reflection of mood.
Neither a pugnacious pout nor trumpeting lips are seen. Neither a challenging glare in his eyes nor a frown emanates from Trump’s face. But is there a hint of superiority in the lighthearted finger point? “Yes, I like you, Bibi, but I’m still in charge . . .”
References & Photos Credit
Anonymous (2017). "30 of Donald Trump's Wildest Quotes." CBSNews.com, 2017 [http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/wild-donald-trump-quotes/7/ (accessed Feb, 28, 2017)].
Cohen, Elizabeth (2015). "How Trump's Bumtious Body Language Dominates." CNN (September 17 [http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/17/health/republican-debate-donald-trump-body-language/ (accessed Mar. 19, 2017)]).
Meisler, Stanley (2005). "The Surreal World of Salvador Dali." Smithsonian Magazine (April) [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-surreal-world-of-salvador-dali-78993324/ (accessed Feb. 28, 2017)].
O'Brien, Timothy L. (2005). Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald (New York: Warner Business Books).
Photos credit: Vingt Minutes, Paris, France.
On a May 22, 2017 stroll down a red carpet at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, Melania Trump swatted her hand to refuse her husband's arm-reach inviting her to hold hands as they walk. To see Melania's gestured refusal, please click HERE. That she walks slightly behind him is another sign of avoidance.
On a May 25, 2017 tour of NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Donald Trump pushed in front of Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, and posed for NATO TV by squaring up to the camera, aggressively lifting his chin (in Mussolini fashion), and adjusting his suit jacket to embellish a dominant primate's broadside display. To see this astounding nonverbal outburst, please click HERE.
Strong-arm Handshake II
At a May 25, 2017 NATO summit meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron locked palms in an aggressive, white-knuckled handshaking contest. To see the presidential white knuckles, please click HERE.