What the Debaters Didn't Say

Who cares about platforms or zingers? The real messages were non-verbal.

By Crawford Kilian 3 Oct 2008 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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A smile that says more than words?

In ancient Rome, an office seeker was called a candidatus because he wore a white (candidus) toga. You could tell what he was from clear across the Forum, before he even opened his mouth.

The leaders' debates on Oct. 1 and 2 were also heavy on non-verbal communication, as they're supposed to be. After all, a candidate should also be candid, which means open and honest. It's easy to lie with words, but hard to lie with body language and tone of voice.

Non-verbal communication was important even in the venue of the debates. "Proxemics" is the use of space to communicate. In most political debates, like Obama-McCain and Biden-Palin, each candidate has his or her own space, shielded by a podium and separated by a considerable distance from the other. The proxemic effect of distance is to create formality, even alienation.

A surprising intimacy

In the Canadian debates, however, everyone sat at a round table, sharing space on terms of equality. Each candidate was within reach of at least two others, enjoying a proxemic intimacy lacking in the American debates.

In the French debate, fluency itself was a non-verbal factor. May's clumsy French was a drawback, but at least she was trying. Her animation served her well and her presence carried the message that les Verts deserved Quebecers' consideration.

Gilles Duceppe had the relaxed body language of a guy on his own turf, and Stephane Dion was also more comfortable than he usually seems on anglophone TV. Montreal-born Jack Layton rattled away in confident French, trying to look like a happy warrior. Stephen Harper handled himself well and even attempted a few Trudeauvian shrugs.

Harper on helium?

For English speakers watching the French debate, the simultaneous translation supplied another nonverbal surprise. The effect was striking, more so for Harper than for the others. Harper's baritone monotone was gone, replaced by his translator's nervous tenor. It drew attention to his body language, not his words.

When we detect a conflict between verbal and non-verbal messages, we always trust the non-verbal one. In this case, Harper's physical gravitas kept him looking "prime ministerial" despite the translator's chirps.

In both debates, according to commentators like Jeffrey Simpson, the other leaders "ganged up" on Harper. It's hard to imagine what else they were supposed to do. But it served as a stress test: The camera was often on Harper for both his opponents' questions and his replies.

In one sense his body language sent the right message: He didn't raise his hands, palms out, in defensive gestures, or lean away from his attackers. But his fixed smirk sent a message of pure contempt.

In the French debate, this was so obvious, and so bad, that I expected him to correct it the next night -- if need be, with injections of Botox.

But it came back with fatal frequency, making him look smug and patronizing. Even a poker face would have given him the appearance of listening respectfully before rebutting his attacker's argument.

Non-verbal elements in the English debate included Duceppe's freedom to be a kind of colour commentator, poking fun at all the non-Quebecers. Elizabeth May showed flashes of humour also, but her tone of voice was usually that of an axe-grinder.

The prof and the class wiseguy

Stephane Dion's strategy was to maintain a calm, measured tone of voice. It minimized his awkward accent; more importantly, he conveyed tranquility rather than the anxiety revealed in many of his English-language interviews.

It was a good decision, and not just an act. He looked and sounded like a good classroom prof, one who knows his stuff and keeps the students on task. Layton, by contrast, was the class wise guy, eager to take shots at top-student Harper.

But the intimacy of the setting also made his sudden attack on Dion all the more startling: The two men were side by side, and Layton was right in Dion's face. The Liberal handled it well, but the intent was to show that Layton is ready to get up close and nasty.

Who won?

Who won? Who lost? Opinions vary. On the Maclean's blog, Andrew Coyne cited a snap poll saying Dion clearly won the French debate.

On the Western Standard, a right-wing blog, P.M. Jaworski gave the English debate to Layton -- on the basis of "zingers." But Jaworski added: "I suppose Harper did well just by staying quiet and reserved. And maybe some people thought that had all the appearance of a statesman."

The Friday Globe and Mail, on the basis of an Ipsos Reid poll, gave the English debate to Harper, with a "most improved" award to Elizabeth May.

Among the blogging Dippers, "Jan from the Bruce" was typical: Layton won the debates. Liberal blogger James Curran reacted to the debates by attacking the NDP and Conservatives, not by backing Dion.

Keeping their togas clean

Non-verbally, the candidates mostly kept their togas clean. Elizabeth May established herself as a political presence. Happy-warrior Jack Layton evoked memories of street fighter Jean Chretien, not honest boxer Tommy Douglas. Gilles Duceppe kept up a non-verbal conversation with his own constituents while ignoring the rest of us. Stephane Dion didn't yield his space and tried to take some of Harper's.

Stephen Harper for the most part stayed on his nonverbal message: With my physical bulk and my blue suit, I'm the PM and I should stay that way. But the contempt he conveyed with that smirk wasn't aimed just at the other debaters: It was aimed at anyone who's not backing him.

The snap polls may not have picked that up, but the Oct. 14 poll very likely will.

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