Last week I watched the Vice Presidential debate with apprehension. After the first Presidential debate and the recent Covid-19 White House outbreak, I was concerned about the tone and the possibility that it would turn into another theatrical event. Fortunately, it didn’t. While there were definitely cringe-worthy moments, I thought that the debate accurately represented each candidate. Senator Harris and Vice President Pence couldn’t be any more different with respect to their backgrounds, beliefs, and political views. But what struck me the most was the difference in their body language, specifically their facial expressions.
Harris spent much of the debate in a broad smile, her eyes lit up. Pence on the other hand was stone faced, his lips tightly pursed. For most people, facial expressions share one’s internal feelings. Pence conveyed calm and seriousness. Harris also exuded calm, but with a positive and affable feel and a sense of ease.
Our facial expressions, whether you intend to or not, can convey a range of emotions. There are assumptions that others make based on your facial expressions (whether they are correct or incorrect) and as a speaker you need to tailor your expressions to the tone you are trying to communicate. You need to be aware that a smile implies happiness and a furrowed brow implies anger. This is especially important in the world of virtual meetings, where all eyes are on you.
Facial expressions convey authenticity and trustworthiness when the speaker’s messages are aligned with what they are displaying on their face. Additionally, the consistency of facial expressions enables audience members to connect more with the speaker (experiencing a mirroring effect), they are perceived as more likeable and their presentations are more memorable. Take for example the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate, the first presidential debate broadcast on both TV and radio, which demonstrated the influence of stage presence on audience perception. While the finding that radio listeners preferred Nixon vs TV viewers preferring Kennedy has been questioned based on small sample size, more recent research has shown that TV viewers judged the winner primarily on their personalities (vs listeners, who based their judgment on both the issues discussed and the candidates’ personalities). Kennedy engaged the TV audience and showed confidence with direct eye contact with the camera, while Nixon’s eyes darted around the room.
In the VP debate, Harris had a wide array of “Posed Expressions”, where she had conscious control over what she was displaying (passing through the cerebral cortex). And yet, it was the Emotional Expressions, sometimes called “microexpressions”, which ended up as Memes on the internet. Those were the innate reactions that appeared for a very brief time, which revealed what she was feeling, like disgust in a smirk, before she could control it.
There is naturally a sexist perspective, where the poker face portrayed by Pence can be seen as gravitas and decisive leadership while Harris is portrayed as overly emotive, her eyes shedding light onto her emotions. However, authentic smiles, referred to as the Duchenne smile, can be uplifting. Research has shown that it can create social cohesion, elevate mood, and reduce your body’s stress response. So with bad news pouring in daily and a country divided, that is exactly what we need right now. If you can’t be authentic, think about a happy memory, a person or a place, that warms your heart and can elicit a smile naturally on your face. So exercise those facial muscles (specifically your zygomaticus major muscles and your orbicularis oculi muscles) and SMILE.