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Body Language at Philadelphia Democratic Debate - Head Tilt as Sign of Trouble?

By April 16, 2008

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The gloves were on and the claws retracted at tonight's Democratic debate between Clinton and Obama. The candidates were so terribly polite to each other.

But Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos pressed the candidates hard enough to cause an interesting phenomenon to manifest itself in both Clinton's and Obama's body language. That phenomenon was the head tilt.

When Obama was asked about his 'God and guns' comment his head tilted, angling to the right. He did it again when his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was the subject of several questions. Through much of the debate, he kept tilting his head.

Clinton did a much better job of keeping her head level. But like Obama, she tilted her head when she was asked about statements misrepresenting her Bosnia experiences.

Does this mean anything?

Two McGill University researchers hypothesized that "when a head is bowed, the face should be perceived as submissive, sad, displaying inferiority emotions (i.e., shame, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and respect)....Conversely, a raised head should be perceived as more dominant and displaying greater superiority emotions (i.e., contempt and pride)...."

I'm writing this as the debate takes place, so this is being published online before the post-debate deconstruction of the candidates' performances takes place. So the declared 'winner' is unknown to me at this time.

But keeping in mind that women are more closely scrutinized for their body language cues more frequently than men, the fact that a level head is demonstrated more consistently by one candidate over the other says something to me as a woman and as a voter.

Photo © William Thomas Cain/Getty Images


April 16, 2008 at 9:58 pm
(1) Monesie says:

I think Hillary Clinton is a master in managing and controling her own emotions espescially in media environment She is pleased to say she has been tested. I think she bests anybody in that field (hiding any emotions)

April 16, 2008 at 10:56 pm
(2) leslie says:

Is it good to “best” in this way? Do we want emotion hidden, I am trying to figure out why that would be preferable? Additionally I read elswhere the debate was far from polite, or perhaps I read into it. If citizens are patient enough to deconstruct the Clinton criticisms, they will no doubt see them for what they are, political gamesmanship. To perry and thrust is the point, to keep people seemingly on their toes, and bobbing and weaving. Presenting themselves as defensive as though that were a wrong thing in and of itself. There is a difference between defending oneself and being defensive. Still it strikes me that we either buy one kind of talk or another, depends what kind of communicator we ourself happen to be. So I take back the assurance citizens will read this with reason, some will, and undoubtedly some will not.

April 17, 2008 at 1:36 am
(3) Deborah White says:

The “debate,” if one can call it that, has been roundly reviewed as a brutal and bruising debacle, and was dubbed an “ABC freak show” by one prominent blogger. Not one issue of substance was even addressed for the first hour.

On CNN, former Clinton administration member David Gergen commented that he was puzzled that Hillary twisted the knife again and again. And the NYT reports that she attacked him repeatedly.

It was a shameful and painful event, and ABC News should be deeply embarrassed, especially by Charles Gibson.

Body language be damned. This is no way to select a president, or to honor those who have rendered valuable public service to our country!

April 17, 2008 at 10:53 am
(4) womensissues says:

In terms of addressing each other and responding courteously to the questions, I stand by my evaluation that both candidates were polite compared to what I’d seen in previous debates. When both were asked, “Do you believe your opponent is electable?” both said yes and then elaborated why she/he is bettter.

I also saw Gergen’s post-debate comments – what Clinton did was restate and re-emphasize the nature of the questions and inquires directed at Obama for specific actions/words credited to him in recent weeks. Clinton stated what she would and wouldn’t have done had she been in Obama’s place – for example, she said she wouldn’t have continued attending a church where the pastor delivered a sermon the week after 9/11 that blamed the US for the attacks. That’s what Gergen calls “twisting the knife.” I call it driving a point home. If he wants to fault her for that, it’s his right.

ABC News chose to focus on direct questions to the candidates that addressed recent public concerns. I recognize that a good number of Americans who are not political news junkies tune into the debates, and ABC News used viewer questions (even airing their clips asking these questions of the candidates) to set the tone and approach. This is what people want to know, and these are ordinary Americans, not web-savvy readers of the Daily Kos or other prominent bloggers. Prominent bloggers are all fine and well, but many of us don’t live or die by their evaluations. We exist outside the Washington bubble that seems to be the whole world to those who live, breathe, and exist within its confines – or who focus their attention primarily on what happens inside.

Debates are not there to honor those who have rendered valuable public service to our country. They are there to aks the questions we would ask if we could sit at the mic next to Charles Gibson. He and Stephanopoulos drew from the current headlines, and if that’s what they’re being panned for, so be it.

April 17, 2008 at 10:37 pm
(5) Deborah White says:

Here’s a link to the Washington Post critic review of the “debate,” wihch he called ” shoddy, despicable”:

And here’s link to a video of the PA governor, a huge Hillary supporter, hwo expressed great disappointment in both ABC and the debate:


It’s not just us Obama supporters talking subjectively, in this situation, anyway.

April 18, 2008 at 12:59 am
(6) womensissues says:

And Deborah, you know I don’t accuse you of being subjective as an Obama supporter. But you are extremely well-versed in this election, in US politics in general, and in the issues. This is not true for most of the population of this country of ours; many are more excited by the outcome of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars than the presidential election. This is not because they are stupid, but because they feel disenfranchised from the political process, even when they’re told their vote matters.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that so many experts and critics and reviewers tell us what they think, and it leaves little room for us to develop our own thoughts. How do I dare to form an opinion when a much more credentialed and vetted person tells me that what I am thinking is wrong?

Do we really need polls predicting how people will vote? Why can’t we just allow the vote to happen without second-guessing the outcome?

The other issue that looms large is advertising dollars and the news. We’re living in a culture which requires news to entertain us as well as inform us. ABC News chose to pursue entertainment at the expense of issues, and it seems they prioritized questions asked by viewers interviewed in the streets and in their homes. Great for the viewers who think, “Hey, ABC gave a voice to average people like me.” Not great if that’s not where you wanted the debate to go. And the experts didn’t like it. Does the American public agree? We may never know, because we were told not to like it, so who’s going to say otherwise?

Good or bad, there are viewers who wanted to hear from Obama and from Clinton as to why they would lie, obfuscate, avoid, deny, and mislead. And Charlie and George ‘went there.’

I have sat at enough dinner tables with family and friends, in people’s homes and out at restaurants, to know that everybody I come in face-to-face contact with is tired of this race already. Yet every time a new foible of the candidates is revealed, ears prick up, bloggers chew on even the smallest nugget, and mainstream media run the story into the ground. And we continue to consume this news, even though we’re sick of it.

My post was a simple observation of one thing – the head tilting of the candidates. Nobody’s going to change their mind about Obama or Clinton because of a tilt of the head. Yet women are scrutinized heavily for their body language, and men not so much. So – although I didn’t say it – I found it ironic that Obama (whom many have said has more ‘female’ characteristics than Clinton) held his head differently than Clinton, who we all know is very practiced, controlled, and media wary. Unlike Charlie and George, I wasn’t going to ‘go there,’ but I trusted that readers might see that unspoken comparison and think about what it means in a race between a man and a woman.

I resist telling people what to think – I want them to do that on their own. And if they come back here and share that opinion, that’s even better. Because even if I disagree, I will validate their right to think as they do. That’s my job and that’s my goal.

April 18, 2008 at 10:17 am
(7) Whiteknyght says:

I think the interesting thing about the debate – and the topics brought up by the questions – is that is showing that the Democratic party is once again so eager to go down its cannabilistic implosion tendencies (a mixed metaphor, I know). And right on schedule…

Now, I am enjoying the the fact that energy is being infused into US politics again – and have a certain purient desire to see some akin to Detroit 1968 break out on the convention floor… But if you really want to regain the White House… you kinda should be cognizance of the fact that the level the race has sunk to the last few weeks will do more to put McCain in the White House than the shadow of electing a Woman or an African-American…

April 18, 2008 at 10:18 am
(8) Deborah White says:

I honestly thought I was being helpful to you, Linda, by lending my expertise in my narrow area.

April 18, 2008 at 11:57 am
(9) womensissues says:

And your input is always valuable, Deborah. So we’ll continue this discussion offline so that others can add their two cents’ here.

August 19, 2008 at 11:45 pm
(10) Susan says:

Actually there is a possibility that Obama’s head tilt could be due to a medical condition. See Dr. Noah Klein’s comments at

Obama Head Tilt


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