Tens of millions of Americans watched Mitt Romney and Barack Obama accept their parties’ presidential nominations at their national conventions. We heard their stories and parsed their arguments, but we also watched their faces and, consciously or not, read their nonverbal cues: their body language, how they hugged their families and friends, and above all, their smiles.
Research with my colleagues Erik Bucy at Texas Tech University and Marc Méhu at the University of Geneva suggests that the timing of our leaders’ smiles, and the muscles they use to make them, reveal something about their character and their connection to their constituents. Different kinds of smiles offer distinct revelations, and they elicit different reactions and emotions from viewers.
I watched both candidates’ convention speeches. When accepting the Republican Party’s nomination, Romney smiled 11 times in 38 minutes. Most of his smiles responded to audience applause, laughter and chants of his name, but they varied in timing and intensity.
Meanwhile, Obama smiled just five times during his 39-minute address in Charlotte. The president wasn’t necessarily glum, but his speech was different: While Romney spent a substantial portion of his time introducing himself to voters, Obama focused on his record and his plans, not his biography. Different rhetoric makes for different smiles.
Let’s take a closer look at four types of smiles beamed at the conventions by the men battling for the White House. We can’t read their minds — but we can attempt to read their faces.
POSED SMILE Sometimes referred to as a “false” smile, a posed smile is a versatile social tool. The lip corners are pulled up and back. This signals positive feelings, even if they are not sincere. Politicians use posed smiles to recognize an audience’s applause and laughter. But such smiles do not necessarily mean that a candidate is genuinely moved by an audience’s response.
ROMNEY: Romney flashed many posed smiles during his speech, beginning when he stepped on the stage and accepted the nomination. His criticisms of Obama were accompanied by posed smiles. Romney must overtly endorse the broader GOP critiques of the president; the smile signals that he does.
OBAMA: Obama’s posed smile came immediately after he finished his speech and waved to the crowd. It was obligatory. He might have had other things on his mind — the coming jobs report or the possibility of conflict with Iran. But when you accept the Democratic presidential nomination for the second time and face a tough election that will determine your legacy, not smiling is not an option.
FELT SMILE A felt smile is more sincere than a posed smile. Not only are the lip corners pulled up, but muscles around the eyes contract. If a posed smile conveys necessary information — “I’m not a threat” or “I agree with you” — a felt smile says, “I really like you.” (Whether it’s coincidence or something in the water, Arkansas politicians such as Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee often display felt smiles.)