Media Notes: Obama Needs a Non-Verbal Communication and Culture Coach

President Barack Obama, despite the appeal of his speeches, policies and proposals, regularly engages in two forms of non-verbal behavior which are tremendously off-putting, even to some of his staunchest supporters.

Eye contact with the camera

The first is his maddening habit of almost never looking at the camera when speaking for television or in public settings where he is being taped by news organizations for later broadcast. Perhaps this habit developed from the use of teleprompters in the presidential campaign of 2008. Whatever its origin, Mr. Obama seems to be genuinely averse to looking the camera–and the viewer–directly in the eye.

This pattern of non-verbal communication can undercut the serious and appropriate message contained in his words. It may produce on the part of the viewer an intuition or a feeling that the president is not being sincere and is not shooting straight. Experts in non-verbal communication might readily confirm this observation.

Alpha-male body contact

A second pattern of behavior one can observe is President Obama’s proclivity to patting foreign leaders (and others) on the back or shoulder. While this behavior was probably highly useful in the Illinois Senate and perhaps the U.S. Senate, it comes across very differently when Mr. Obama pats German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the back, or Chinese President Jintao Hu.

The behavior appears to express an assumed position of superiority, and may also be highly inappropriate in some foreign cultures where norms of physical contact are sharply different from those among the men of the U.S. Senate. One does not see Angela Merkel slapping Obama on the back, for instance, or President Jintao Hu giving Mr. Obama a pat on the back.

The risks here are that, first, President Obama, who in other regards appears to be authentic and sincere, may undercut his message through non-verbal behavior–aversion to looking the camera in the eye–without being aware of his behavior or its effect on his audience. Because the effect is usually below the level of conscious awareness, viewers may not be able to articulate why their feelings toward the President are changing.

The second risk, of inappropriate body contact with leaders from different countries, may have an impact both on the foreign leader involved and his or her entourage, and on those viewing the interaction on television. While the reaction may be one of understanding, at one level, at another and more personal level it may be a feeling that the president doesn’t really respect or understand “us” or “our culture”.

Given the importance of non-verbal communication in affecting the reactions of others, it seems that President Obama is in urgent need of the assistance of one or more non-verbal communication and foreign culture coaches.

These non-verbal communication traits may be of far greater importance in terms of favorable and unfavorable perceptions of Mr. Obama than one might at first suspect.

The president needs to learn to look at the camera from time to time as well as the teleprompters and the audience to his sides, and to be well advised by experts on culture and non-verbal communication with respect to his physical interaction with foreign leaders.

The Trenchant Observer

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