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.)
ROMNEY: When Romney displayed felt smiles during his speech, they followed applause for remarks about his in-group — joking about his iPod playlist being better than running mate Paul Ryan’s, for example, or describing his parents’ move to Detroit, a line the Michigan contingent cheered. His strongest felt smile came when he recounted how he took a chance on a Steel Dynamics mill funded by Bain Capital. This smile suggests that Romney is truly proud of this accomplishment.
OBAMA: Obama displayed a felt smile when he stepped onto the podium, greeted by applause and chanting. Another one came after he expressed how proud he is of his daughters, Sasha and Malia, and made a joke: “Yes, you do have to go to school in the morning.” This smile was extremely strong, almost an amusement smile (see below). The president playfully directed his comments toward his innermost circle — his family.
AMUSEMENT SMILE An amusement smile shows trust. It may look like a powerful felt smile — as the lip corners pull up and the eyes contract, the jaw loosens or drops open — but it’s a more primal gesture that probably developed early in human evolution. When you smile with a loose jaw, you let down your defenses; someone could theoretically knock you out with your mouth open.
Counterintuitively, amusement smiles often appear in political debates. In the 2008 primaries, Mike Huckabee and John McCain often displayed them, as did Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. This probably indicates that, though they were competing for the same job and might have disagreed, the candidates liked each other. Their amusement smiles said, “We’re jousting — this isn’t a fight to the death.”
Since then, things have changed. Neither Romney nor Obama displayed an amusement smile during his convention speech. This fits into the conventional narrative about the past four years — partisanship is on the rise, the country is deeply divided, and stakes are high — although it might reflect the context of both politicians preaching to the choir at their conventions.
Romney and Obama did display amusement smiles away from the podium. Romney smiled and laughed when joined by Ryan on the dais; Obama smiled and laughed when his family came on stage. For both men, amusement smiles may be limited to interactions with the people with whom they are most comfortable, whether running mates or family members.
FLEETING SMILE A fleeting smile is more private — a “smile to yourself.” It may be any one of the smile types already discussed, but it isn’t necessarily a response to audience applause, laughter, chants or booing. Because these smiles don’t appear to be a reaction, they may offer a window into a politician’s inner life — although they are tougher to detect because they are subtle.
ROMNEY: One fleeting smile occurred when the candidate reminisced about his youth and how his “friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.” Another came six minutes later when he spoke about a call from a child who was deciding whether to take a job close to home. It’s not surprising that Romney loves his children, but a fleeting smile when discussing religion is telling, especially since his Mormonism was played down in Tampa. It could suggest that religion is more than part of his brand; that, as a member of a minority faith, he cares about religious freedom.
OBAMA: One of the president’s fleeting smiles came after he made a humorous comment attacking his opponent’s lack of foreign policy experience. Another appeared when he said that a young homeless woman who won national recognition for her science project gave him hope. Though these smiles came during laughter and applause, their subtlety suggests deeper emotion. Perhaps “No Drama” Obama, after four years as commander in chief, takes Romney’s assertion that he would do a better job more personally than some commentators think. And perhaps the homeless young scientist is more than just another line on the teleprompter.
Patrick A. Stewart, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas,
has written extensively on facial displays by politicians. He is the author of “Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign.”