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The Vice-Presidential Debates: Sarah Palin’s and Joe Biden’s Body Language

Biden looked confident in himself, and confident and knowledgeable in most of his answers in Thursday night’s debate. His head constantly was tilted to his right, away from Palin, and a head tilt can communicate many things. For me, it made him appear off-center, not truly on the up-and-up or honest. The no-interaction rule set by the McCain team worked to Biden’s benefit. His usual over-the-top anger and ranting were much more restrained. Yes, Biden was angry. Yes, he pointed and used one- and two-handed chopping motions to make his points, but his anger made him appear earnest and sincere. Yes, he got angry at Palin very early in the debates and he occasionally pointed his finger at her. Also, many times he jumped in before he was called on to say that she was wrong, but he could have been more attacking and, thus, would have looked far worse than he did.

As usual, Biden effectively used his anger and confident voice to mask false statements; he essentially lied at least seven times. The false statements were often about McCain (check out for the lies). If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that people often use anger to cover deceit. When a spouse yells, “I can’t believe you would accuse me of being unfaithful!” the angry attack is a way of hiding the lie.
Palin used anger to sound very strong and in control in her first televised speech as a vice presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention; in the vice-presidential debates, however, she never used this anger to cover a lie. Palin’s anger in the debates was not direct. Instead, she looked irritated and snide. Overall, Biden’s body language and paralanguage made him look powerful and in control. The friends with whom I watched the debates said he looked presidential; Biden would love that. He wanted to be president and would never run for vice president before the debates, and he said in Thursday’s debate that Obama would consult with him on all important decisions.

Palin was in her element at the debate, as she gets defensive in one-on-one interviews. She wants to be loved and when she feels the judgmental tone of an interview, she seems to take it personally. But in a speech, with a camera on her, she shines. She needed to be happy and confident in this one-and-only debate to win over those who saw her give those long, rambling generalities in her Katie Couric interview.

When you look at the nonverbal cues of Palin, you can’t help but discuss her appearance. As Palin came onto the stage, many of my male friends made comments about how attractive she is. We like attractive people. It is one of the four major aspects of a great first impression, with the second-most-important factor being charisma. Palin has charisma. Her make-up was a little “beauty-queen” heavy, but I coveted her little black suit.

Palin started with a smile and kept a smile on for most of the debate. As I said in a recent Bill O’Reilly interview (available online on my YouTube channel from BodyLanguageExpert, Palin has got the smile down pat. Palin’s smile beams out and when she looks into the camera, giving the audience her full, bright smile and direct-to-camera eye contact, she can win an audience. Her smile seemed natural most of the time. However, if you watched carefully you would have noticed that as she rushed to the end of her round without taking a breath, her smile flattened as she pressed her lips together tightly and the camera turned to Biden. The tightly pressed lips, especially when the lips turned downward, showed her desire to mask any negative emotion, be it frustration, nervousness or anger. Naturally, almost all the time and, particularly in the interview, that made her pleasant to look at. If you watched the debates on CNN, which provided direct audience feedback electronically, you may have noticed that the male Ohio voters’ line jumped up when she smiled.
Yes, she faltered at times; yes, she repeated her strong talking points on energy and her “up in Alaska as a mom, I…” statements far too often. But each time she did so, she smiled and her voice grew strong and she was absolutely sincere. Her voice goes up at the end of a sentence when she states details and facts, such as generals’ names and the Iraq war budget; this belies her insecurity.

Palin walked the B-line well in this debate. What is the B- line? Well, women have to walk a fine line between being too feminine and being perceived as weak or going too far to the other side of the line and being perceived as a b--ch. Powerful women have the hardest time walking the line between those two extremes. Hillary Clinton didn’t have a problem choosing; she stayed strong and came across too far on the B-side. Palin wants to be more feminine, so she uses her beauty-queen smile to mask her anger. At times, especially near the end of the debate, the smile became a snarl and made her look condescending. We can take the masking smile in politicians, but we don’t like masking smiles in powerful people. The stiff smile that often only crinkled up on one side of her face made her look catty and snide.

Palin did a little blinking when she started, but it was not the highly nervous 50 to 60 blinks per minute or the 80 blinks per minute known as The Nixon Effect. She went to her strength, her down-home, folksy manner of delivery. Her little “betcha’s” and other contractions were a little much when she was talking about the big issues, but overall they evoked a Reaganesque warmth and the electronically monitored approval ratings soared on the bottom of the  screen, just as they soared every time she said “Americans.”

I have gotten several calls from reporters today, asking about her wink. In a wink, the closed eye keeps the secret and the open eye excludes others from seeing it. I believe Palin winked six times during the debate. That is amazing. Only a woman could get away with that; Biden would look lecherous if he winked. McCain could get away with it if his wife was not nearby. Perhaps non-lecherous winking in men requires white hair.

The wink, however, was natural for Palin. She was not coached to wink, though perhaps she was coached to do it often so she would feel strong and connected to the audience. The abundance of winks, as well as the wink to her family members in the audience, was over the top. And, she winked and closed the eye furthest away from Biden. For Palin, the wink was of a shared secret, a secret between her and Middle America as an act of collusion. She winked as she made comments such as, “We are tired of politics as usual” and other remarks where she was one of the Middle Americans. Interestingly enough, Biden tried those verbal comments too, but it worked only when his voice caught as he talked about the terrible accident that affected his family.

For more of my observations, as well as observations of other body-language experts, link to ABC News, below. 

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