Friday, March 23, 2012

Nonverbal Communication Analysis # 1491:
Barack Obama on Trayvon Martin -
"If I Had a Son, He'd Look Like Trayvon"

This video is an excerpt taken from a press briefing in The Rose Garden at The White House this morning in which President Obama announces his nominee for the new head of The World Bank - Dr. Jim Yong Kim -  who is standing at the President's right. During the announcement, President Obama was asked about Trayvon Martin - the Florida teen whose recent killing has stirred many. Although there are other body language tells in this video, I want to call attention to two in particular - the "Inward Lip Roll" (ILR) and the "Central Forehead Contraction" (CFC).

When one's central forehead muscles are contracted, leaving the sides (lateral portions) of the forehead relaxed, this is a very specific nonverbal signal of pain. This pain is either  felt directly - experience in the first person, or indirectly via empathy for another person, group of people or an animal(s). Another important aspect of the pain-associated with a CFC, is can be either physical pain or emotional pain. President Obama displays this body language several times during the video. At the 0:16 mark, there is a superb example of a CFC displayed very briefly in a "microexpression" when the President says, "....When I think about this boy ....". The CFC is again displayed - this time more prominently and for a longer duration at the 1:13 mark when Mr. Obama says, " .... But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin ...". President Obama, feels very real emotional pain for Trayvon's death and significant empathy for his parents.

Dr. Kim, the current Dartmouth College President, a physician and the former director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) HIV/AIDS department, is best seen very briefly at the beginning moments of this clip, and is also displaying the same central forehead contraction at the 0:02 - 0:03 mark. It's very good to see that someone who will probably head The World Bank displays such empathy. Green light this guy.

The Inward Lip Roll is a very common nonverbal signal of anxiety - but more specifically it is a signal of an effort to control the outward display of negative emotions. The psyche is attempting to put out emotional fires before they grow. The President is primarily reigning-in sadness. No good parent wants to even imagine the loss of their children and thus, though empathy, feels others' grief when they experience such a tragedy. Barack displays the ILR at several times though out this video: at the 0:11 mark (very subtle, with his lower lip, just after he says, "... I can only imagine what these parents are going through ... "), at the 0:17 - 0:18 mark (just before the President says, "... I think about my own kids..."), at the 1:12 mark (just prior to the CFC noted above, and the President saying, "... But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin ...") and at the 1:17 and 1:24 marks (just before and immediately after Mr. Obama says, "... You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon ...").

We are primarily emotional creatures who dress ourselves up in a thin veneers of logic and intellect. The essence of the science of Nonverbal Communication - is the study of emotions and how they manifest in real time on the face and body. We are human beings first and foremost. If we happen to label ourselves Democrat or Republican, we have a fundamental need to see the emotion of sincerity displayed in our political leaders. When we do, we connect with them more. Unfortunately, too often a tragedy will serve as a platform for such an expression.

See also: Secret # 531: Sarkozy's Mouth Tells Us What He's Feeling