What can a staged grip-and-grin picture tell you about international relations? A lot, says Peter Andersen, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Body Language" (Alpha) and professor of communications at San Diego State University. "The body language of world leaders is reflective of their attitudes either toward the individual or toward the country or the culture," he explains. The president suffers poor approval ratings in the region, and anti-Bush demonstrations have been common during the trip. So it’s not surprising that some of the photo ops from the five-nation Latin American tour reflect tension, Andersen says. "Bush's body language in many of the images from this trip is that of someone who's either very reluctant or somewhat inept, and that confirms the image that a lot of people in those countries and around the world have already developed of him." NEWSWEEK's Susanna Schrobsdorff asked Andersen to review photos from the trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why are images so key to how we regard world leaders?
Peter Andersen: Pictures transcend culture and literacy levels. You don't have to read all of a 2,000-word newsmagazine cover story to get something from it. That image on the cover, it has irrefutable and intrinsic meaning. You can have an opposing article, but there's no way to refute a photo. It is what it is and it resonates deeply within us for that reason. Images even affect different parts of the brain than language does. The structures that process face are in a part of the brain that's very intuition and quick judgment. It has a logic of its own and it's extraordinarily powerful.
The photos of George Bush in Latin America were mostly formal, scripted events with regional leaders. What can we glean from those kinds of staged moments?
First of all, in those situations you're dealing with intercultural interactions. Body language is not identical across cultures, but it's still revealing. In Japan, you can see what's a reluctant bow, or a perfunctory bow. Part of it is how deep is the bow, how long it's held. Looking at these kinds of images, you can find out a lot from the attitudes, facial expressions, posture and the way the leaders touch each other. These photos are a rich source of all three kinds of information.
Can the average person analyze body language accurately, or do you have to be an expert?
You can't read a person like a book, but most people are really good at a process called "thin-slicing." We make judgments about race, gender and age with that first look. Then there's body language—people are really intuitive at figuring out whether that there are good vibes there or not. It doesn't take five hours for us to do that, it can take 30 seconds. And, our research shows that those first impressions are pretty accurate. You can tell whether a person is comfortable, whether they are anxious or warm. Those judgments are made very rapidly.
So we can tell when politicians are being sincere and when they're lying?
With deception, it's more complicated and hard to figure out. But we can tell whether a person is comfortable in their own skin and that has an effect on how we see them. [Sen.] Barack Obama almost always seems comfortable, while [Sen.] Hillary Clinton and [former vice president] Al Gore almost always look a little stilted, even to those who like them. They don't convey comfort in their own skin.
When you looked at a photo of President Bush with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger taken this week, with their hands raised in greeting palms out, you said that Bush looked very uncomfortable. Why was that picture particularly significant?
What they were doing with their palms is a universal cross-cultural sign of friendship. It's so universal that the United States etched that image on a Pioneer space craft because they thought aliens might encounter it. It shows you have no weapons and you're revealing your palm—a very vulnerable part of the body. It's not an area you'd expose to an adversary. You'd have a clenched fist in that case. Almost everywhere in the world, that greeting is a sign of peace. That is exactly the pose Bush and Berger are in, but the way Bush is making the gesture, it looks inept or reluctant. It may add to the image of him as somewhat dazed and confused in the world.