Nonverbal Communication in Politics
The 2012 presidential election finally reached its conclusion late Tuesday night on November 6th, as the incumbent Barack Obama won a second term in the White House over the challenger Mitt Romney. The election, with its reputation as the most expensive presidential race in history, attracted wide attentions not only from the United States but also from many other countries around the globe (Confessore & McGinty, 2012). The election was also noted with a numerous number of debates and discussions in both online and offline about the two candidates’ policies and pledges on every level. However, while a lot of attention was paid to the candidates’ verbally expressed speeches and pledges, the candidates’ nonverbal communication drew a relatively insignificant amount of attention from both the media and voters. Despite the fact that people pay more attention to candidates’ verbal communication, nonverbal communication, such as physical appearance, facial expressions and eye contact, plays a decisive role in elections and politics in general.
To begin with, nonverbal communication is by its definition “the intentional or unintentional transmission of meaning through non-spoken physical and behavioral cues” (Toma, 2012, p. 19), and it has different means for transmitting information nonverbally, such as facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and body postures. Moreover, according to Rashotte (2002), nonverbal communication conveys additional information about the behavior being performed, and it can be performed with other behaviors to reinforce the meanings of those behaviors or contradict them. For instance, nonverbal communication can inform others whether a person is performing a behavior earnestly with a smile or unwillingly with a grim face. In contrast, verbal communication is far from being a perfect method of communication. When a person is communicating verbally, there are many possible ways for the content to be misunderstood. It is prevalent that the content a speaker verbally expresses and the content the audience interprets are not congruent. In addition, Archer and Akert (1977) state that nonverbal communication not only buttresses, but often trumps verbal communication, and transmits more meanings in conversation than verbal communication. Bonoma and Felder (1977) also add that people have the tendency to perceive nonverbal communication to be more authentic and unaffected than verbal communication, and therefore people are relatively easily influenced by the nonverbal cues they observe. Consequently, it is only natural to expect political decision making to be similarly affected by the virtue of nonverbal communication, and indeed, a number of recent studies have shown this to be the case.
Not only that, Kopacz (2006) notes that the importance of nonverbal communication in political persuasion has in fact increased dramatically in the last fifty years for several reasons. Unlike 50 years ago, when candidates most often used the radio and newspapers as their channel of communication to voters, politicians these days utilize much more visualized media like televisions and the Internet to communicate with voters. The arrival of televisions and the Internet has made it significantly easier and more effective for politicians to persuade and convince people to vote for them and at the same time “has given viewers substantial exposure to candidates’ appearance, gestures, posture, and other nonverbal cues” (Kopacz, 2006, p. 2). In brief, nonverbal communication, which is communication without the use of spoken language, has many functions in politics. Nonverbal communication discloses additional information about the speaker’s behavior, and often conveys more meanings in conversation than verbal communication (Rashotte, 2002; Archer & Akert, 1977). Moreover, nonverbal communication is usually perceived as more authentic and influential (Bonoma &...
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