‘With All Due Respect, That’s a Bunch of Malarkey’: Decoding the Debate Smile

Zennie Abraham / Zennie62
Zennie Abraham / Zennie62

This Presidential election has resurrected a very interesting dichotomy — The “debate smile.” Urban Dictionary says it is a forced smile that a person in the spotlight (in this case we can clearly look at our candidates) adopts in reaction to an opponent’s attack during a verbal spar. This smile, in theory, saves face in front of the audience (in this case, we are talking more than 60 million viewers) to keep the mood seemingly friendly and lighthearted.

There is a difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. Our rivaling politicians have the most first-rate and outstanding unconvincing smirks on the planet during the debates — the hard, lip-piercing, forced grin-like smile with laser-beam eyes piercing the other candidate is very apparent to the televised audience. And, at times, it feels as if they may actually zap one another with a small dosage of electric shock therapy as they are speaking. Bzzzttt…

“With All Due Respect, That’s a Bunch of Malarkey”

Joe Biden has brought about a new kind of debate attitude. Instead of the somewhat friendly, somewhat condescending debate smile, there is now a cartoon-like debate ‘chuckle.’ It threatens a non-verbal spar without the best of intentions — at least that is what can be inferred from Vice President Biden’s snickering in this funny video.

You might not consider smiling to be a confusing emotion, but when there is so much room for authenticity, surprise and misery all in one gesture, oftentimes, smiles are completely misunderstood. The Washington Post presented a video with University of Arkansas political science assistant professor Patrick Stewart narrating what body language and certain smiles might indicate during an Obama/Romney debate. Here’s what was described:

Felt Smiles

Felt smiles involve a narrowed look in the eyes with an upswing of the lip corner. It indicates the candidate is truly happy, that they do have feelings inside of themselves.

  • Romney — Felt smiles appear when he is happiest. This seems to be when referring to his running mate, Paul Ryan. He seems to feel confident in being a team.
  • Obama — Felt smiles occur when he steps up to the stage and waves to the audience. He seems to love the adulation of the crowd.

Pose Smiles (False Smiles)

Not showing internal feeling that a person has. It’s smile saying, “I’m friendly,” but, Stewart explains, it’s also a multi-purpose social lubricant.

  • Romney — Pose smiles happen throughout speech. smiles too audience applauding and laughing. He may or may not feel emotional connection with his attacks at Obama.
  • Obama — A pose smile happens when he steps away from the podium and relaxing in the moment. He’s had a stressful speech and is relieved the moment is over.

This non-verbal communication that happens between people tells us a lot about our politicians. It matters to us who has empathy and the ability to connect with us because this is who will be representing we the people for the next four years. We don’t want a false idol.

About the Author

Isabella Jimenez
Isabella teaches ESL at the middle school and high school levels. She was the editor-in-chief of an online Spanish language magazine until she decided to go freelance.

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