Jane Falk is a linguist and consultant in cross-cultural communication in Berkeley, Calif.
Doth they protest too much? In their “60 Minutes” interview, which aired Sunday, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waxed poetic about their relationship: “a great collaboration,” “a friendship as opposed to just a professional relationship,” said Obama; “very warm, close, a sense of understanding that sometimes doesn’t even take words,” said Clinton.
To hear their responses, the interview was a veritable love fest. But words are not the only way in which people convey meaning. Every interaction includes “meta messages” through nonverbal behaviors such as body language. These unconscious signals may not correspond with the verbal messages. In the Clinton-Obama interview, it was clear that the two like each other and that their minds were in accord. But they also conveyed that they are not equals — and the signs of intimacy that accompany close friendship were absent.
Given that Obama is president, a certain degree of deference can, of course, be expected. But Hillary Clinton isn’t just anyone. So her posture in her seat was striking. During the interview, she sat inclined toward Obama, her elbow far over the armrest near him, with empty space on the other side of her chair. She almost constantly nodded in agreement. A few times, while gesturing, she came close to invading his personal space.
Obama’s posture made them an oddly poised pair. The president sat back in his chair, mostly straight, facing interviewer Steve Kroft. His elbows were close to his body. Though he often turned his head toward Clinton and his legs were crossed in her direction, even when oriented toward her his torso moved only slightly, his lower half stationary. He often nodded lightly in agreement with her answers, but he leaned toward her for only a few seconds.
Obama was being Obama, cool and presidential. Clinton knows well how to project herself similarly. But here she was the eager subordinate, rallied in his service. Her words were addressed to Kroft; her body, to Obama.
Although it often wasn’t clear to whom Kroft was addressing his questions, the style in which Obama and Clinton answered reinforced the dynamic. As a joint interview, either could have taken the floor. But Clinton routinely deferred to her boss, particularly when the subject was policy. She piped up when he finished, always reinforcing what he had just said (as he did for her). The rare exceptions when she spoke first without being directly addressed were in a follow-up query about “political tea leaves” for future elections and in response to their spouses’ reactions to their 2008 battle. She knew her place.
Overall, the masculine-feminine tones were striking. Obama was chivalrous, even protesting that their 14-year age difference was “not by much.” His interjections supported her statements. Early on, when she said they had “such agreement” on policy during the 2008 campaign, he interrupted, saying, “It made for tough debates, by the way” — “It did,” she agreed — “because we could never figure out what we differed on.” After emphasizing his interjection, she joked: “We worked at that pretty hard.”
This is a classic “conversational duet,” in which two speakers act as one when addressing a third. Obama and Clinton were in accord throughout, but this was the only time they dropped boundaries and spoke in one voice.
This sort of intimacy is frequently clear when Obama and his wife speak together. Friends, too, speak in such a manner. But although Clinton did not include herself in Obama’s answers, he spoke over her several times.
Metalinguistics is not an exact science. But it helps us understand the meaning of such behavior. By not answering first and never disagreeing with Obama, Clinton and her posture bespoke total involvement. It’s no wonder he likes her so much. Clinton projected herself as a loyal soldier and team player who didn’t hold a grudge. Nothing she said or did indicated that she was her own person, which may suggest why she didn’t leave her own stamp on her office. Notably, Obama did not give her sole credit for any achievement, always mentioning the team. Absent were kudos to her as a leader.
Clinton was a hugely popular secretary of state, which makes the interview all the more conspicuous. She didn’t need this public hug. Obama did. He needed to show he could make friends of foes and that, despite its dearth of women, his administration is not sexist. This exchange, however, indicates that he failed at that task.
The writer is a linguist and consultant in cross-cultural communication in Berkeley, Calif.