What's Donald Trump Hiding? His Body Language Says it All

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Donald Trump speaks during his first press conference since winning the election in the Trump Tower in New York, on January 11. His body language demonstrates the power of nonverbal forms of communication. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Experts have long known that humans communicate with much more than just words. Nonverbal cues are critical in everyday situations, from parenting effectively to dating to acing a job interview, or even getting served in a timely fashion at a restaurant.

These cues are also important for assessing and forming opinions about the people around us, including public figures. Plenty of research shows that hand gestures, posture and facial expression and other visual communication cues (even how close a person stands near others) are ripe for interpretation. Often-cited (and debated) research from psychologist Albert Mehrabian suggests that 55 percent of human communication is through body language, 38 percent is the tone of voice, and only 7 percent of the message understood is the result of what the person says. This assertion may not hold true in all circumstances, but it does suggest that nonverbal cues are critical to communication.

What makes this particularly interesting is that often these visual cues don't match up with what the person says, especially when it comes to people in public prominence. More recent research suggests that when people's nonverbal communication isn't in line with their words, these visual cues are probably a better way to read their thoughts and feelings. Take, for example, Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, Trump held his first press conference as the incoming commander in chief. The event quickly turned raucous as Trump denied he had any involvement with the Russian government and criticized members of the press. Amid his more obvious, aggressive forms of communication (yelling and finger-pointing) was a message that the president-elect is on the defensive and perhaps has a little something to hide, says Patti Wood, a body language expert for more than 30 years, speaker and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma.

Wood has been analyzing the nonverbal communication of politicians since George W. Bush Jr. was in the White House, and she has made some interesting observations about Adolf Hitler's salutes and Sarah Palin's winks. Trump, she says, is a great study of how a person's gesturing, posture and facial expressions can be both confusing and persuasive.

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"He is the perfect person to say the nonverbal has the power," she says of Trump. "People don't hear the words, they don't really pay attention to the verbal message. It doesn't matter at all."

When Wood assesses someone's communication skills—verbal and nonverbal—she thinks about what's customary for any person in a given scenario and environment (in this case, a high-profile press conference held by the president-elect). She also considers the "baseline" behavior of that particular person. Wood has been studying Trump's idiosyncratic communication habits over the past 18 months and says there have been some small changes in the way he addresses the public since he began campaigning for the presidency. For example, Trump now raises his hands higher when he gestures, suggesting he may have a higher opinion of himself after winning the election.

The way he evokes feelings through facial expression has also evolved. In the beginning of his campaign, Trump had what she calls a "broad emotional range," meaning he could move freely from facial cues of laughter to rage and anger. "And then I noticed a transition where he stayed in anger more often," she says.

But there are also many things that remain consistent, such as his habit of evading questions and then providing an answer that's seemingly unrelated and ultimately falls apart into fragmented language. "His baseline is often the baseline of someone being deceptive," says Wood, adding that these are communication cues she looks for when asked to analyze a video of an interrogation. "He's someone who doesn't use complete sentences and chooses to answer questions with an odd mix of words. That would typically be an indication of deception."

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That verbal communication is underscored by some visual cues, such as Trump's trademark gesture: an emoji-like AOK symbol with his index finger and thumb touching at the tips. In public speaking, many people are trained to clench their thumb and finger tips together to evoke the message "I'm being precise."However, Trump's gesture is different, and Wood says that can be confusing to people watching and listening. In that way, the hand movement becomes a great distraction from his imprecise verbal communication.

Trump, Wood adds, also uses plenty of "weapon-like gesturing." This includes "chopping motions," which he employed on Wednesday when he declared, "I have no ties with Russia." When he reprimanded BuzzFeed for leaking an unverified intelligence document outlining his ties to the Russian government, he moved his hands aside as if "pushing something out of the way," Wood says. That's a less subtle visual cue. Unsurprisingly, it's one of the uncommon occurrences when his verbal and nonverbal communication actually match up.

Even when Trump isn't standing before a mic, his body language sends plenty of strong messages. (It didn't take a Ph.D. to conclude that Trump's lurking behind Hillary Clinton while she answered questions during the second presidential debate was an attempt to intimidate her.)

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During Wednesday's press conference, after giving up the podium to Sheri Dillon, Trump's attorney, others on the stage, including his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, stood formally with arms folded, hands in front of their groins. This is what's known in the public speaking world as the "fig leaf position" since private parts are being shielded. It's a stance that's customary at public meetings like press conferences and evokes respect but also vulnerability.

Trump wasn't guarding his loins at this point. He stood on the sideline swaying back and forth, what Wood calls "self-soothing." He could also be seen biting his lip several times, a subconscious behavioral cue that indicates "self-punishing" and suppressed anger, she says.

In several instances, Trump turned his head slightly to see behind him, which reflects a "primal need to be an alpha animal and know your territory," Wood adds. It also didn't take long before Trump's entire body faced the audience. Meaning: "I want to be the center of attention."

In short, she says, the 45th president of the United States looked bored.

What's Donald Trump Hiding? His Body Language Says it All