FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: BUSH'S BODY LANGUAGE SAYS "I'M AFRAID"

Sometimes, non-verbal communication--that aspect of how we talk that does not involve words--carries the most meaning in a given situation. Such was the case during President Bush's recent press conference in Amman, Jordan. Having read the transcript of this press...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 11/30/2006

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Sometimes, non-verbal communication--that aspect of how we talk that does not involve words--carries the most meaning in a given situation. 

Such was the case during President Bush's recent press conference in Amman, Jordan.  Having read the transcript of this press conference to analyze the President's repetition of the word "success,"  I then went over to C-SPAN  to watch the video footage.  What I saw in that footage took me by surprise, adding an entirely unexpected dimension to my  thinking about the way President Bush attempted to frame Iraq.  With his words, Bush said, "Success, success, success!"  But with every other aspect of his being--his gestures, his tone, his disposition, his glances--President Bush was saying:  I'm afraid.

The President of the United States was the very image of fear in this Amman press conference.   And that image of fear was more revealing than any words coming out of President Bush's mouth, today.

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Body Posture
According to Dr. Beatrice de Gelder a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School and Tilburg University in the Netherlands:

"When we talk about how humans communicate, we always talk about things like language...But just like in the animal world, we also communicate through our bodies without our conscious minds being much aware of it."
(from "Fear Is Spread by Body Language, Study Says," National Geographic News, 11.16.04)

Dr. de Gelder led a study whose results were published in the 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  that looked specifically at how body language relays fear.  While most studies of fear had focused on facial expression, Dr. de Gelder's group used images of people with faces blocked out--to see how body gestures registered in people's minds.

President Bush's body posture in the Amman press conference included a series of jabbing hand gestures, an awkward and repeated leaning on the podium, and sinking of his head into his shoulders.  While slightly different than the images in Dr. de Gelder's study, the body posture of President Bush not only relayed that he was afraid, but actually spread that fear to the people watching him. 

Tone of Voice
In her writings about why people argue, linguist Deborah Tannen has talked about the problem of communicating at a spoken and unspoken level.  Her work includes a fascinating study of young children communicating on a playground, during which the majority of the communication took place in sudden increases and decreases in the speaker's tone of voice.  Meaning comes to us, in other words, not merely through the words we hear, but also through all the other sounds made by the speaker.

President Bush's tone of voice in the Amman press conference was noticeably loud.  At times it felt as if he was standing 50 yards away from the press corp and trying to project his voice over the gap between them.  But the press corp was right in front of him as usual.  It reminded me of the heightened voice tone  of someone who just watched their life savings reduced to dust by a stock market crash.  It relayed fear, although not a fear of ghosts kind of fear.  It was an angry fear.  A fear of being caught, a fear of judgement by people whose advice we heard, but did not heed.

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Facial Expression

Fear expressed through movements of the face are, perhaps, the most expressive of all and relay the most meaning.  Some emotions we relay because we choose to.  We smile for pictures, frown at a baby that is crying, force ourselves to laugh at a friends bad joke.  But fear is an expression that we most often express involuntarily--our faces make it happen for us, even if the way our faces move is partly a product of the culture and times in which we live. 

President Bush's face expressed fear in dozens of different ways at his press conference in Amman.  For President Bush, fear looks like a slight widening of the eyes together with a slightly crooked half-grimace in his mouth.  It is a look that sent shivers through my spine when I saw it in the C-SPAN video--the look of a man who not only does not understand the answers to the questions being asked, but does not understand the reason they are being asked in the first place. 

Framing and Staging in Politics
Beyond metaphor, beyond the words we use and the ideas in our heads--the movement of our hands, arms, shoulders, faces--these all express meaning that is essential to the framing of political communication.

The key distinction, however, comes through the idea of "staging" vs. "messaging."  When we analyze the framing in a speech, there are two levels to consider--the spoken and the unspoken, then staging and the messaging.

In his press conference in Amman, President Bush repeated the word "success" over a dozen times in a clear attempt to frame the debate with a message of confidence.  But when we pay attention to the staging--to President Bush's posture,  tone, and facial expressions--we picked up on the exact opposite of confidence: absolute fear.

And this time, the staging out performed the script.


© 2006 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop

© Jeffrey Feldman 2006, Frameshop

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