Before doing that, however, one must better understand the context of the debate as a whole. In general, the accepted standards for a presidential debate include formal language, respectful disagreements when necessary, and allotted time slots for both candidates to have an equal opportunity to speak. Although there is a live audience, they are expected to remain quiet throughout. During the debate, Trump and Clinton are to stand on a stage in front of the live audience at their respective podiums facing Wallace, and Wallace is to sit at a table that is exactly halfway between both candidates in order to express the inherent neutrality of his position.
1 Clinton: I ((gestures with both hands towards herself)) find that ((gestures with both hands outwards)) deeply disturbing
2 Wallace: Secretary Clinton-
3 Clinton: And I think it is time--
4 Trump: ((Trump licks his lips)) She has no idea whether it is Russia, China or anybody else
5 C: ((points right index finger at a forty-five degree angle up)) I am not quoting myself ((extends it directly at Trump))
6 T: Hillary, you have no idea
7 C: ((switches hand to the ‘ok’ symbol and starts using it to emphasize each word)) I am quoting 17... 17 -- ((looks back directly at Trump)) do you doubt?
8 T: ((gives a sideways glance to Clinton)) Our country has no idea
9 C: Our military and civilian-
10 T: [((pushes out lips and rolls his eyes)) ((glares at Clinton)) Yeah, I doubt it, I doubt it
11 C: [He would rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian
12 intelligence professionals who are sworn... to protect us.((makes dismissive gesture)) I find that just
14 T: ((emphasizes each word with a highly raised pointed finger)) She doesn’t like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her.. at every step of the way
15 W: Mr. Trump-
16 T: ((Extends open hand directly at Wallace in ‘stop’ motion)) Excuse me.... Putin has outsmarted her in Syria, ((Clinton smiles)) ((Trump shakes a pointed finger forward with each word)) he’s outsmarted her every step of the way
17 W: I do get to ask some questions. ((Trump sheepishly reaffirms)) ((Clinton smiles even more at the audience)) And I would like to ask you this direct question...
But it is not only Trump who utilizes this tactic to his advantage. On lines 1-5, despite interjection attempts by both Wallace and Trump, Clinton raises her right hand with her index finger extended as she proceeds to talk. In the same way that students know that the person with the raised hand gets to speak, the audience uses understands Clinton’s social cues as an indicator that their attention should be focused on her. These nonverbal communicative acts work as strong social cues. By using these social cues to keep the attention on themselves, the candidates are aware that they can capture the public eye regardless of what they're saying. This is a very critical tool in the debate setting because often times the candidate who is deemed to have ‘dominated the conversation’ or who is deemed to be the ‘winner’ by pundits is the same candidate who was able to capture the public attention for a greater percentage of the time.
This concept also has implications far beyond the scope of the political sphere. For example, in the case of the transcript that we analyzed in which a couple students studying Arabic abroad were reprimanded by their teacher for not paying attention, the professor used a wide array of hand gestures to communicate to his students. By swirling his hand around, he signaled that he was thinking; by pointing directly at the girl who was talking, he signaled for her to stop; and by laying both hands flat in front of him, he signaled that it was time to move on.
Nonverbal cues are therefore a very useful tool in demonstrating authority. This is true in the cases of politicians, professors and beyond. As such, sociolinguists must take great care to portray them accurately in transcriptions. For this is imperative if Americans hope to better understand their new political climate and how the discourse of their leaders is shaping it.
Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. Print.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.
Pease, Allan, and Barbara Pease. The Definitive Book of Body Language. New York: Bantam, 2006. Print.
Ryan is a student in the introductory sociolinguistics course at Swarthmore College.