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Trump and Our Golden Age of Body Language “Experts”

Business is booming thanks to his awkward interactions with foreign leaders. But what makes an expert? That's in dispute.


Earlier this month, President Donald Trump and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, met in Paris on Bastille Day to cement, in the words of The New York Times, “an unlikely but budding relationship.” But their meeting was anticipated for another reason entirely. At the leaders’ previous encounter, during the NATO summit in Brussels in May, they famously exchanged a white-knuckled handshake. Their rematch on July 14 did not disappoint, as they clasped hands for nearly half a minute—while using their free hands to wave to the crowd, pat each other, and even, in Trump’s case, shake another person’s hand (Macron’s wife, Brigitte).

That epic grip ignited a media reaction that’s become all too familiar in the Trump era. “President Trump’s handshakes with world leaders are unlike any we’ve seen before, but this one, this never-ending handshake with the French president takes the cake,” Alisyn Camerota, of CNN’s New Day, said. “What does the president’s body language tell us about Mr. Trump?” With that, she introduced two body language experts. Chris Ulrich said Macron “steps into it and he starts grabbing the president’s hand and pulling it in, patting him on the back, both for dominance and support.” Jacqueline Whitmore, meanwhile, noted that Trump also put one hand on Brigitte’s shoulder. “When you see someone put their hands on a person’s shoulders that close to someone’s face, it’s a sign of intimacy and you only do that with someone you know extremely well,” she said.

CNN was hardly alone, as The New York Times, Daily Mail, Mic, Time, Independent and other outlets scrambled to find media-fluent body language experts to decode Trump’s behavior. They didn’t have to search very hard. With the rise of Trump—a socially awkward homebody forced to interact with polished world leaders—these experts have never been in greater demand, and they’re seizing the moment. Whitmore and Ulrich also appeared in the Times article. Another expert, Patti Wood, spoke to three of the outlets above.

According to Tonya Reiman, who was quoted by the Independent, there were only a handful of experts when she started in the field. “In 2006 there were probably five of us that were well known,” Reiman told me. “Now there’s probably fifty.” But Dr. Lillian Glass, who recently spoke with the Boston Globe about Trump’s long-awaited handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that if you’re looking for credible analysis, “There are a handful of us you can trust, the rest of us I wouldn’t deal with.”

An apparent boom in the body language industry raises questions about what, precisely, qualifies as expertise. After all, it’s not like you can get a Ph.D. in body language, though you can get one in “nonverbal communication” (or, more affordably, get trained through Reiman’s Body Language University, a free subscription section of her website). But all it takes to appear to be an expert is a professional-looking website or a robust social media presence. “Everybody’s got something to say whether they’re an expert or not,” said Ruth Sherman, a communications coach and author. “I don’t think most of them know what they’re talking about. I think they’re just thinking no one’s going to check.”

Does anyone check? Journalists working on a tight deadline might be disinclined to vet a body language expert to the same degree that they would, say, an economist. “Journalists need a body language expert to do a story, so they take whoever is available,” said Glass, who describes herself as the “First Lady of Communication.” “I can’t tell you how many people are calling me wanting to spin things to their liking.”

And if she declines? Journalists have plenty of other options.

“They find someone who is not an expert and they get them to say what they want,” she said. “Watching all these people claiming to be body language experts is sickening.”

But, true experts or not, there’s one thing they all have in common: a gift for self-promotion.

Patrick Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said it’s hard to pin down who the real experts are because “there is no one path to becoming a nonverbal expert.” Stewart doesn’t have his own website, but most people identified in news stories as a “body language expert” do have one, and their biographies prove him right.

Glass got a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing sciences from Bradley University, a master’s degree in speech from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in communication disorders from the University of Minnesota, according to her bio, which lists her many media appearances, 18 books she authored, and calls her a “renowned Body Language Expert” and “sought after Media Expert.”

Wood’s bio notes that The Washington Post has called her the “Babe Ruth of body language experts,” and that she “holds a BA and MA in Body Language and Nonverbal Communication”—without specifying the schools (Florida State University and Auburn University, respectively, she told me). She’s also a Certified Speaking Professional, which she describes as “an earned professional designation of the National Speakers Association designed to recognize ‘Masters in the industry’ and is earned by less than 8 percent of its world wide membership.” (According to NSA’s website, about 12 percent hold the CSP designation.)

Most bios read like those do: degrees in communication, published books, media credits, and assorted accolades. And the ones that don’t? Public Words CEO Nick Morgan, who last year analyzed the GOP candidates’ body language for CNN, studied English at Princeton University and earned his master’s degree and doctorate in literature and rhetoric from the University of Virginia. He went on to teach Shakespeare and public speaking at his alma maters, and was a speechwriter for Virginia Governor Chuck Robb in the 1980s. No slouch, in other words.

How, then, can one spot an alleged fraud? Whom is Glass referring to when she says that “you’ve got people who are not sophisticated, not educated, in the areas of body language and communication coming out as experts”? Who are these people who, she alleged, “want to see their name in print” and are “100 percent driven by a desire to be on television”?

Neither Glass, nor any other expert who alluded to allegedly unqualified competitors, would single out a specific person. Others say it’s impossible to even make such a distinction. “There are no standards,” said Morgan, “there’s no way to prove or disprove if someone is an expert.” Others, despite having the education, would rather not be called a body language expert at all. Bart Rossi, a licensed psychologist in New Jersey, says the title is “limiting in scope and depth.” He prefers “political psychologist.” He added, “I think we should talk about body language, but it should be in the context that it’s certainly not as important as other factors including personality traits.”

Most experts agree that body language analysis can’t be definitive, and that it should complement other analyses (psychological, political, or linguistic, for instance). Glass calls it “an art and science.” Reiman elaborated on this view: “The science is being able to read and understand what someone is feeling and emoting and expressing, but the art is now trying to figure out what the context is telling you about why he or she might be expressing in those emotions.” Sherman said conclusions drawn from a person’s body language are “at best fuzzy.” “None of it is for sure, it is all deniable,” she said, adding that those who make definitive claims are “stretching it in a big way… They’re exaggerating and it’s wrong.”

But there’s a reason that body language experts have been in such demand since Trump’s rise, and it’s not just because his behavior is so unorthodox for a U.S. president. Stewart, the University of Arkansas associate professor, said that “talk is cheap” for Trump, so non-verbal communication can provide legitimate insight about his intentions. “His use of language is generally accepted by both supporters, the White House, communication staff and opponents as not being precise,” said Stewart. Thus, “Trump’s nonverbal behavior is perhaps the best way to understand him, by understanding his personality traits and his behavioral intentions.”

Stewart is certified in something called the Facial Action Coding System, which is described as “a research tool useful for measuring any facial expression a human being can make.” Stewart deciphers meaning from Trump’s eye blinks, smiles, slack jaws, and so on. After Trump’s joint address to Congress in February, Stewart told Forbes, “What was quite revealing was his leaking of fear through a microexpression that involved pulling his lip corners back when he made a statement concerning war.” He cited his recent study, which found that this microexpression “appeared to function as a powerful form of nonverbal punctuation that led to research participants perceiving Trump as more competent,” and added, “So not only is this microexpression likely a reliable indicator of his internal state (possibly a fear of war and its costs), it also has the potential benefit of making Trump more ‘believable’ on this issue.”

That’s a lot to glean from a slight stretch in Trump’s lips—but even Stewart admits as much. “Anyone who claims to have precise insights into the inner state of humans,” he said, “is invariably not an expert.” That’s worth keeping in mind next time a body language expert is called upon to analyze Trump’s latest faux pas. Sometimes there may be a simpler explanation. As the president told The New York Times last week, about his protracted handshake with Macron, “People don’t realize, he loves holding my hand—that’s good!”