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In battle for nonverbal dominance at U.S.-Russia summit, Putin was the clear winner, experts say

At their summit in Helsinki on July 16, President Trump appeared to wink at Russian President Vladimir Putin at least twice. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Carrie Keating was almost slack-jawed with amazement by the end of President Trump’s news conference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin Monday. Keating has studied the nonverbal gestures of politicians for three decades, but she found the performance between the two men on the stage nothing short of incredible.

“Whoever made the arrangements, they so clearly favored Putin. You saw him do almost every dominant behavior you could stage in social science lab study,” said Keating, a psychology professor who studies charisma and leadership at Colgate University.

Keating quickly ticked off more than a dozen nonverbal assertions of dominance by Putin — including Putin’s agile hop onto the podium (vs. Trump’s lumbering walk), Putin’s animated gestures and the way he often disregarded the audience when speaking.

But the key victory for Putin was the fact that he spoke first and spoke the longest, she said. In research conducted in her lab, she said, in groups of strangers, the person in the group who spoke first and longest almost always ended up having the most influence during subsequent problem-solving tests or exercises.

“In that way Putin was absolutely dominant. He spoke for so long at the beginning, just going on and on while everyone else, including Trump, had to wait on him,” Keating said.

The one instance where Putin appeared to hit pause on his alpha male behavior was during his answers to questions about Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 election. “You saw him shrug a lot and raise his eyebrows almost in a childlike way and gestured with an open palm. We call those approach gestures. They’re meant to suggest, ‘I’m not here to hurt you,’ to seem nonthreatening,” Keating said.

But then Putin’s face absolutely danced when Trump started talking about the missing servers and Hillary Clinton’s emails, she said. “It is just amazing. You see looks of contempt. If you look close, you can see his tongue go into the side of his mouth, almost like he’s trying to inhibit his gestures. Like he’s trying and having trouble controlling his nonverbal gestures at that point,” she said.

In the face of Putin’s performance, Keating concluded, “maybe the one thing Trump had going for him was how tall he was … that’s maybe the one aspect he may have won.”

In the wake of high-profile meetings of world leaders — where every gesture often seems fraught with meaning — cable TV news programs often call in body language experts. The evidence behind some of their claims, however, is somewhat squishy.

There is serious research devoted to the science of nonverbal communication, including Keating's, but academics caution that it’s often hard to draw firm conclusions from studying limited interactions.

“Whenever there’s a big meeting of leaders, you see all the body language ‘experts’ on TV with interpretations. But the reality is little of that is validated by science,” said David Matsumoto, who has studied nonverbal expressions for more than 30 years. “Yes, there’s a wealth of information in nonverbal expressions, but the problem is that there are real limits.”

Scientists who study nonverbal expression often have much more data than a brief handshake or news conference. Researchers analyzing the gestures of two people walking together, for example, would measure the distance, speed and gait of each person’s walk and compare it to their walks with others. To break down facial reactions, researchers often spend hours coding the intensity and duration of more than 40 independent muscle movements in the face. Context matters as well. “You can’t compare Trump walking into meeting with Putin or standing at podium, for example, to video of him sitting down with [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel. They’re different settings and actions,” said Matsumoto, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University.

Despite those limitations, experts are extracting what they can.

Throughout Monday’s news conference, for instance, Matsumoto noticed Putin clearing his throat during Trump’s answers to the media, which could be seen as an attempt to assert control.

“There was some contempt in some places, and then some very subtle disgust,” said Matsumoto, such as when Putin was addressing certain topics like Syria and the Islamic State.

Since Trump’s rise to power, Judi James, a communication expert in England, has noted a revival of many classic power and alpha male nonverbal behaviors among world leaders — from Trump's epic power handshake competitions with French President Emmanuel Macron to his often cool, dismissive interactions with European leaders.

What's up with President Trump's intense handshakes? (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

It's hard to tell, for example, if Trump was deliberately late to his meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May a few days ago, James said, “but it seemed to lead to her lukewarm trait of greeting him from her doorstep at [her country residence] Chequers rather than rushing forward as he got out from his car.” Similarly, Trump and Putin seemed to be competing to see who could keep whom waiting on Monday, with Putin ultimately showing up an hour late to the summit.

The reason people try to read so much into these high-stakes meetings is we have so little to go on about what’s happening between the two leaders, experts say. Even now, for example, no one knows what was said in the meeting between Trump and Putin. All we are left with is their little gestures and handshakes when they came out.

“And it’s not like the data isn’t there,” said researcher Matsumoto. “There’s a lot there you could glean, but the problem is deciphering the signal from the noise.”


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