Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Analyzing Interpersonal Communication at the First Presidential Debate (2016)

I'm going to be completely honest: tonight's debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the first presidential debate of this season, was also the first presidential debate I've ever watched. (I was 7 days too young to vote in the 2012 election, making this statement slightly more understandable.) I don't know if debates between candidates are typically so clamorous, but watching Clinton and Trump pick at each other all night was not an enjoyable experience for me. In this post, I will share my notes about aspects of nonverbal and verbal communication that stood out to me while I was watching the debate.

Image used with permission by Michael Vadon and Gage Skidmore on Wikimedia Commons

Nonverbal Communication:

  • Hand Shakes: I was not surprised that the two candidates attempted to begin the debate in a civil manner. Clinton and Trump shook hands, then shook hands with the moderator as well before taking their places at their respective podiums. Things would only go downhill from there.
  • Posture: Each candidate had to stand during this debate. They both stayed at their podium (though I believe they each may have moved around the stage had their mikes not been attached to the podium). Both Clinton and Trump stood up straight and alternated between having their hands to their sides, having their hands on the podium, and using their hands for gestures while speaking. Compared to the energetic words fired during the debate, the candidates' postures remained proper and respectful.
  • Facial Expression: Both Trump and Clinton had their fair share of strange looks while the other was speaking. Trump tended to purse his lips, squint his eyes, and look down at the podium. Clinton did the same thing, but she also had a look I could only term as "wild eyes" when Trump said something she deemed outrageous. Despite these typical reactions, both of them occasionally smiled when the other attacked, as if they knew that statement was coming. Both Trump and Clinton showed their emotions and reactions on their faces tonight, even if those emotions were incredulousness or annoyance directed at what the other had just stated. I did not feel like either of them made much of an effort to mask how they were truly feeling.
  • Kinesics: 
    • Hand gestures: I thought the hand gestures used by both candidates during this debate were appropriate. I was not distracted by the hand gestures, which means that they were not used too little or too much. Additionally, none of the gestures used were outlandish (such as swinging their arms wildly or making inappropriate hand movements).
    • Head movements: There was a lot of nodding and shaking of the head happening during this debate. It mostly occurred while each candidate was speaking about the other candidate. (Sometimes the reactions went beyond head movements; every once in a while, one of the candidates would blurt something in response to what the other had said.)
  • Para-language:
    • Tone: The tones varied during the debate. The tone each candidate used matched the content of what was said (such as a firm, level tone to describe policy changes they wanted to enact, for example) and the related emotions they felt. I did not catch any inappropriate tones used during this debate; their tones matched their emotions and message.
    • Speed: Each candidate spoke relatively slowly at the beginning of each segmented portion of the debate; however, as it became clear that either candidate could interrupt the other at any time, they began to speak more quickly. I believe both candidates spoke quickly so that they could get as many ideas out as possible before they were interrupted. 
    • Volume: The change in volume of the candidates' words matched the change in speed. The candidates were more subdued and spoke at an even volume when it was their turn to talk, but as the debate wore on and they continued to repeatedly speak over each other, their voices got louder (despite the fact that each candidate had a microphone). Additionally, snide comments while the other person was talking (before the outright yelling) were usually said softly yet audibly.


Verbal Communication:

  • Fact Checking: A big issue tonight was whether or not the claims Trump and Clinton were saying were accurate. Both commented that their websites would have "fact checker" pages that would be updated in real time to determine whether their opponent's words were true. While I did not check either candidate's campaign websites, my Twitter feed was filled with quotes from both Clinton and Trump that were proven false. And articles are already posted online with "fact checks" from the first presidential debate. As a young person who doesn't know a lot about the issues, I had to watch the entire debate unsure if I could believe what either candidate was saying. 
  • Terms: I want to mention two words/phrases I heard tonight that made me reflect specifically on what was said by the two candidates. 
    • Clinton introduced a new (at least, new to me) phrase to describe Trump's economic plan: trumped-up trickle-down economics. I really doubt that this was created on-the-spot in the debate, but nevertheless, it was an artfully inserted slam at her opponent. I appreciated that Clinton briefly explained what this means, as there may have been viewers who did not know the concept of trickle-down economics (or what makes Trump's ideals bad in her opinion).
    • Trump also used a word I had never heard before: braggadocious. This was one of those moments when my Twitter feed blew up because people didn't think this was a word, but it turns out that it is. "Braggadocious" is an informal word used to mean "boastful" or "arrogant." The resulting backlash over the use of this word reiterates the importance of knowing your audience and making sure the way you are communicating with them is clear.
  • Message: A few times while I was listening to the debate (I turned off the picture for a while so that I could just listen to the words said), I realized that I wasn't entirely sure what either candidate was trying to say. I was surprised at how often ideas were abandoned before either candidate was able to actually say a complete sentence about the issue. This left me confused as a viewer, especially one that is not highly literate in politics. I was astounded because the candidates' messages should be the most important part of the debate! How are we supposed to compare and contrast the two candidates' views if the views are not properly expressed in the first place?
  • Etiquette: There were many times during this debate that proper speaking etiquette seemed to be thrown out the window. Both candidates spoke over each other and over the moderator, shutting each other down so that they could speak. This happened even as each candidate was supposed to have his or her two uninterrupted minutes to answer the question at the start of each segment! The worst parts were when both of them were speaking loudly and forcefully at the same time because this made it impossible to determine what each of them was actually saying. The lack of manners was what made the debate unbearable for me to watch. 
One additional note I'd like to add is related to the "Trump Sniff!" I don't know if this falls under nonverbal or verbal communication... the sniff is not truly a word, but it is a noise. And does it matter whether or not the sniffles were intentional? Do you think they were intentional? Was Trump feeling under the weather tonight? Regardless, Trump's nose noises were distracting and noticeable enough to inspire a new Twitter handle, @TrumpSniff

I am sure that, soon enough, a news source will publish some sort of official analysis of the interpersonal communication demonstrated at the debate tonight. However, I just wanted to blog about some of the things I noticed while I watched my first presidential debate. I was very distracted by the yelling and coarse nature of the debate, but if you are used to watching this style, perhaps you picked up on other communication notes that I missed. Please share your thoughts in the comments! <sniff>

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