Several days after Hamas attacked Israel, I turned on the TV and saw Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Tim Scott of South Carolina being interviewed on one of the morning shows. As the anchor discussed the horrific situation and loss of thousands of lives Scott was grinning from ear to ear. I was stunned. How can anyone smile in the face of such atrocities?
I realized that Scott was almost certainly not smiling at the sobering news, but rather was trying to appear pleasant and likeable for the TV audience. However, he likely came across differently than intended. When non-verbal communication doesn’t match what someone is saying, it can lead to various consequences including confusion, mistrust, and misunderstandings.
Sometimes these mismatched communications can be amusing and not as serious for those of us not running for President. For example, imagine someone nodding enthusiastically while emphatically saying “No”. The contradiction between the head movement and what they are actually saying might be amusing. Or think about a person who rolls their eyes while assuring someone they are excited about a mundane task. The non-verbal language sends a message that they are less than thrilled. Others may struggle to stifle laughter when delivering serious or sad news. It might be nervousness, but they can come across as inappropriate or awkward. Typically these examples are short-lived and harmless.
But what if you are a Presidential candidate, CEO, celebrity, or someone else in the limelight? Inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal cues can leave listeners uncertain about someone’s true intentions or emotions. That leads to distrust and questions about the speaker’s authenticity and integrity. Here are a few notable examples:
- Richard Nixon: During the Watergate scandal, the 37th President of the United States exhibited defensive body language and perspired during news conferences which undermined his credibility.
- Lance Armstrong: Maintaining a very assertive tone, for years the cyclist strongly denied using performance enhancing drugs. However his non-verbal cues like fidgeting and avoiding direct eye contact during interviews raised suspicion. Eventually he admitted to doping.
- Bill Clinton: During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, former President Bil Clinton’s finger wagging denial of sexual relations with “that woman” seemed to contradict the evidence against him. It made his denial more memorable and perhaps unbelievable.
- Marion Barry: The former mayor of Washington, D.C. was caught on tape during a drug sting saying he was set up. When confronted, his non-verbal cues demonstrated a lack of remorse and sincerity.
- Britney Spears: In numerous interviews over the years, Spears often spoke positively about her life, but her non-verbal language such as nervous laughter has raised questions about the reality of her words.
You don’t have to be famous to experience how non-verbal cues can sometimes reveal inconsistencies with spoken words. In politics, business, sports, entertainment, or any industry, they should serve as reminders that when the two don’t match, they can be telling indicators of someone’s true thoughts and emotions even if they attempt to say otherwise.
A few years ago, I was preparing a spokesperson for a media interview. They were sharp, on message and articulate. Yet, when we played back the tape, we both noticed that this person was frequently raising their eyebrows while speaking. Instead of signaling interest or curiosity as raised eyebrows can do, in this case the raised eyebrows seemed to express uncertainty and confusion. The unintended communication was hard to overcome, but this individual did so through continued videotaping and playback to create more awareness.
In some cases, people may intentionally or unintentionally mask their true feelings through body language and facial expressions that don’t match what they are saying. If these contradictions persist, they can lead to a breakdown in communication. That leaves listeners frustrated, disengaged or uninterested in both listening and continuing a conversation.
That’s why it’s essential to encourage people to recognize and understand their own non-verbal cues and the potential impact on others.