Can body language win you votes? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.09.2013
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Can body language win you votes?

Hardly anyone reads manifestos, instead many judge politicians based on personal impressions. Gestures, facial expressions and symbolic actions play a significant role and vary worldwide. But how important are they?

"Ruck Zuck" - that was the name of a popular German game show in the 90s that had a premise similar to that of charades, only that the most important rule of the game was that no sounds - and no gestures - could be used when acting out terms.

One might think this latter rule also applies for German politicians, at least when comparing them to their colleagues in other countries. Take for example the casual way in which US president Barack Obama took off his jacket during a speech this summer in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. The chancellor didn't seem to break a sweat even with the heat sweltering above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Farenheit). And while the US president occasionally enjoys singing and dancing in public, the German chancellor prefers listening to performances of Wagner.

Sticking to the content instead of using physical signals - is that typically German?

Stability vs. testosterone

Bildergalerie Politiker Gestik Merkel

German chanceller Merkel's body language is marked by serious, controlled facial expressions and symmetric gestures

Yes and no, says body language expert Stefan Verra and Paula Diehl, who researches political staging. German politicians do, of course, use facial expression and gesture - but in a much more subtle manner, especially when it comes to Merkel.

Her body language is marked by serious, controlled facial expressions and symmetric gestures, said Diehl. "This kind of posture signals a particular stability and conveys security," she said. Her language, which is free of polemic and seems harmonic and moderated, corresponds with this as well.

"In comparison, [Merkel's top challenger Peer Steinbrück] is much more impulsive and aggressive and thereby exudes a combative spirit," Diehl told DW. Steinbrück takes up much more room with his body language, and his movements are more intense. He often walks around the room, which matches his personality, while with Merkel the focus is more on her office, according to Diehl.

"He very strongly goes for the specialist image and has a masculine style. Merkel basically avoids everything that is gender coded, thereby creating a sort of neutral image."

Getting personal - but not in Germany

But even Peer Steinbrück seems rather dry and formal when compared with politicians from other countries.

"Especially in Latin America - but also in North America - we see much more emotional and polemic election campaigns - with regard to the way arguments are made and also image," said Diehl, herself a native Brazilian.

Bildergalerie Politiker Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner 10.12.2011

Politician Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner lets her tears flow freely

One example is the Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who made mourning her dead husband and former president Nestor Kirchner part of her image in the 2011 election campaign. She was dressed in black and only talked about "him" - without ever saying his name.

Political rivals have a penchant for mud slinging in Latin America on the campaign trail, just as in the US. "People aren't afraid to become very personal. In Germany, we are still faced with an ethos of trying to preserve privacy," said Diehl. And so the German media accepts Merkel's reservation when it comes to her husband - who has a very low-key public image. Questions about a politician's personal life are "hardly posed in Germany."

These differences can be cultural, Diehl points out. On average, northern Europeans have less pronounced posture and less sentimental body language. The electorate also expects this from their representatives: "Political staging and public relations obviously play an important role," Verra added. "But a PR or communications advisor can only enhance the quirks of a person, not change them completely."

Moreover, political parties in Germany play a more important role than in America, for instance, where politics is strongly personalized and where a more modest discussion style - rather focused on consensus - dominates, Verra said further.

A burger with Bush and a bath towel with Berlusconi

There are also country-specific differences when it comes to the way in which politicans attempt to connect with the people and their traditions. Journalist and political scientist Constantin Alexander points out that German politicians are wont to eat sausages and drink beer at public events.

Bildergalerie Politiker Gestik Peer Steinbrück mit Wurst

Merkel's rival Peer Steinbrück likes proper German food: potato salad and sausage

Food plays an equally important role in the US. "During the election campaign, Barack Obama bit into almost any kind of fast food at least once. In comparison, there are hardly any pictures of Mitt Romney eating a Taco, because for a Republican that symbolizes immigrants from Mexico, the 'Illegals'," Alexander told the German newspaper taz.

It's a different story in Italy. There, top-ranking politicians don't mind showing themselves off in bathing trunks at the beach - a trend that goes back to a certain former prime minister with a love of young women and bunga-bunga parties. "It is really interesting to see how body language has changed since Berlusconi," Diehl said.

"This body language doesn't stick to any political pattern at all; here we have gestures seen in everyday life mixed with political habits." In Italy, politicians are informal and not afraid to crack a joke below the belt. It seems they follow the credo: "I have so much power that I can afford to appear as a non-typical politician."

What's left is the question of whether facial expressions and gestures can actually influence an election. The correct body language alone can't do that, agree Diehl and Verra. But: "We do believe it's ultimately all about the content, even though our brain does reacts strongly to visual signals," said Verra. However, if we feel uncomfortable with someone or feel misunderstood, we tend simply to ignore the arguments, said Verra.

To illustrate this, Diehl turns once again to the evocative power of food: "During the 2004 US election campaign, there were polls in which George W. Bush supporters were asked why they wouldn't vote for John Kerry: And the answer was: 'I can't imagine sitting in front of the TV and eating a burger with him - but with Bush I can.'"

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