In Salt Lake City on Wednesday evening, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris sat approximately six feet away from each other, behind plexiglass shields, and had a battle of crooked brows, smirks, and head shakes.
There were fewer interruptions — though Pence still managed cut off Harris enough times to get at least one good meme out of the moment — but more rogue flies than last week’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. However, it was those in-between moments that caught our attention.
Body language expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, spoke with InStyle late Wednesday evening after the debate to discuss those cocked heads, the smug smiles, and what it all means.
Both Senator Harris and Vice President Pence smirked plenty while the other was talking during the debate — but not all smirks are equal.
“It’s fascinating that Kamala uses smiles to respond to Pence when he is giving false information,” Wood says. “Smiling and shaking her head in disbelief are the softest ways for her to respond. For those viewers who were expecting her to look angry, they are seeing her maintain her calm.”
Pence’s smirks, too, communicated a sense of control. “I coach executives who are going to be interviewed by the media and we work on their talking points,” Wood tells InStyle. “I can tell when a candidate has had a media coach school them on a talking point. Pence was coached on the packing the court statement — I can tell because he not only repeated it, it was one of the rare instances where he increased his volume, and when he said it he smirked with ‘gotcha’ delight.”
Harris’s Smile and Head Tilt
It was a matter of seconds after Harris told Pence, “I’m speaking” — her version of, “Will you please shut up, man?” — before the phrase began trending on Twitter. Moms tweeted that the smile, the head tilt, and the terse tone of voice, was a familiar one.
She talks to him the way I talk to my children when I’m angry but someone is watching
— Taffy Brodesser-Akner (@taffyakner) October 8, 2020
Wood agrees that the movement was motherly. “When Senator Harris was interrupted again and again, her big smile, tilted head, and firm, low volume voice was that of a mother correcting her toddler,” she says. “She could have gotten angry; we have seen her really angry in congressional hearings. Instead, she was controlled and measured.”
She adds that Harris’s warmth and sincerity play well for her, making her message more memorable in the long run. “Research shows that we love candidates with a broad emotional range,” Wood notes. “We love someone who laughs and smiles big and warmly. We tend to like to know what someone is really feeling, and 4.3 times the message’s impact is sent nonverbally. We remember what people say when they express it with true emotion.”
Pence’s Stiff Posture
“Pence simply doesn’t have much emotion,” Wood observes. “He rarely smiles and if he does, it is not a full smile that goes up through his face, lifts his cheeks, and crinkles around the eyes — a Duchenne smile. And he never brings his voice above a restrained, bed time-story whisper.”
Coupled with his minimalist facial expressions and lack of affect, Pence’s posture, Wood says, “can [either] make viewers feel uncomfortable, or it can make them feel soothed.” However, unlike Harris’s warmth, Pence’s “lack of emotion also means we do not remember what he said.”
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“Harris did a good job of showing vocal and facial variation,” says Wood. “She is particularly potent when she tells stories of loss. Her voice became so deeply tender and emotional as she speaks to the mother [of Kayla Mueller]. She doesn’t rush through. She shows and sounds the emotion of loss and grief.”
While Harris had a clear grasp on her emotional range, Wood says that Pence appeared more flustered on the subjects of grief. “When Pence got to the Breonna Taylor story, he rushed through the story of loss,” she says. But he did “actually did bring up his voice as he talked about the rioting and looting. He showed real anger towards the looting and rioting and destruction of property. I believed him in that moment.”
“I keep a chart of nonverbal behaviors as I analyze the debates and this section got a triple check,” Wood continues. “His voice became louder and stronger and he moved forward. It was the most emotion he showed so far in the debate.”
Harris’s Hand Under Her Chin
When Pence interrupted her, Kamala gazed at her opponent on her left and rested her chin on her folded fists. Wood says this posture is a “containment” gesture, to literally contain her emotions.