Two bodies at war

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

It’s likely that the debate tonight will have little to do with substance, but rather with how the two candidates are perceived by viewers, which may not be determined to any great extent by the content of their answers or the explanations of policy differences. Rather, it is likely to come down to non-verbal communication, namely body language, gestures, and paralanguage, i.e., the tone of voice and speech characteristics. In a recent piece in the Atlantic, James Fallows discusses this aspect of the encounter. In reference to Donald Trump’s body language, he quotes noted anthropologist, Jane Goodall, that “the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals”. Indeed, his imposing physical stature on the stage at the Republican primary debates did seem to overpower the other candidates. The exception was Carly Fiorina, who was alone in standing up to him in the early debates. This time around, he will be facing no men but a woman who is unlikely to be cowed by the kind of chest-beating and belittlement he bestowed on his male competitors. As Fallows comments, “The potential first woman president of the United States, who is often lectured about being too ‘strident’ or ‘shrill,’ is up against a caricature of the alpha male, for whom stridency is one more mark of strength.”

Fallows points out, correctly, I believe, that one of the keys to his success so far has been the simplicity of his messaging and the language used. After the first debate, the transcript of Trump’s remarks was run through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which indicated they matched a fourth-grade reading level. In politics (in the US), that’s a good thing. If it’s spoken language, the simpler, the better, making it more likely that listeners will both understand and retain what is said. According to the article, and experts on body language Fallows consulted, Trump’s facial expressions tend to have a similar narrow range. Jack Brown of, commented that Trump’s range of expressions was considerably less that that of most people, with an interesting corollary:

The reason most people betray themselves through body language—we’re generally poor liars; others can tell when we’re faking a smile—is that our face, hands, and torso do more things involuntarily than most of us are aware of or can control… The payoff in this understanding of Trump’s body language, according to Brown, is that it explains why he can so often say, with full conviction, things that just aren’t true.

Fallows points out that in the first US presidential debate in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, those who heard the debate on radio thought it was a draw, but those who watched it on TV gave the win to the elegant, relaxed Kennedy over the sweating, shifty-eyed Nixon. Today, with high-definition TV, we will be able to spot the possible beads of sweat before even a candidate notices. Fallows says that, “the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.” If the battle of words becomes too much to bear, I might just try out his advice tonight.

Update: 9/28/2016
Yes, the non-verbal side of the debate was fascinating, especially in the last hour, in which Trump get increasingly feisty and defensive and Clinton began to smile more and more. There was one segment that proved particularly memorable, after Trump had engaged in one of his rambling responses, ending with, “I have much better judgement than she has. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she does.” Clinton’s response: “Whoo. Ok.” and a broad smile and several shakes of her shoulders:


The shoulder shimmy seemed a perfect indicator of how the debate went – Clinton delighted in Trump’s difficulty in presenting himself as “presidential”, namely thoughtful, well-spoken, and serious.

Norwegian wood

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood" & inspired a TV program about firewood.

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood” & inspired a TV program about firewood

There have been several stories in the media (NT Times: Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians) recently about a cultural phenomenon that may strike outsiders as very foreign, the importance of how firewood should be stacked. The stories were inspired by the enormous popularity in Norway of a book about firewood (Solid Wood by Lars Mytting) and also of a prime-time TV show on the same topic.  The TV show focused on chopping and stacking wood and was watched by over a million viewers (out of a total population of 5 million), but it also caused considerable controversy – a number of viewers contacted the station complaining that how the wood was being stacked was all wrong.  It turns out that there are strong feelings in Norway about how the stacked firewood should be oriented in reference to its bark, whether the bark should face up or down, so as to aid in faster drying.

The TV special was actually 12 hours long, with the first 4 hours showing and discussing wood cutting and stacking, with the final 8 hours showing live a fire in a fireplace in a Bergen farmhouse.  Through the hours, one could see wood being added and sausages being roasted on sticks, but no sounds were heard other than the burning of the fire.  One comment reported by NY Times article: “’I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited’, a viewer called niesa36 said on the Dagbladet newspaper Web site. ‘When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher…I’m not being ironic,’ the viewer continued. ‘For some reason, this broadcast was very calming and very exciting at the same time.’”  Such sentiments were not universal, however, as the article reports: “On Twitter, a viewer named Andre Ulveseter said: ‘Went to throw a log on the fire, got mixed up, and smashed it right into the TV.’”

The last time Norway was in the news was for something diametrically opposed to the program’s images of peace, calm and simplicity, namely the deadly rampage by Anders Brevik in Oslo in 2011, resulting in 77 deaths. The popularity of the firewood book and TV special may be related to the aftermath of this event, which caused considerable soul-searching in Norway.  Wood burning stoves and the cultural practices that surround their use have a long tradition in a country with long and severe winters.  Firewood culture harkens back to a traditional Norwegian way of life, free from the violence and political strife of the world today.


Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 10.26.11 PMI’m in the process of watching the Super Bowl, a quintessentially American institution and a demonstration of American competitiveness. There’s a lot of stake of course, but do the coaches and the players have to look so angry all the time? It started with the coin toss when the team captains frowningly looked away from each other. As the game progresses, lots of scowling players.  The tv commentators commented that the respective coaches encourage their players to be “on edge”.  In fact, lots of pushing and near fights.  But for me the most interesting scowling was the “game face” on Beyonce throughout her half time set. Does even music have to have an “in your face” attitude? This is an image of America that’s being projected to the rest of the world, in an event broadcast to a large number of countries.

Here’s another TV program which may not embody the best of a culture:  the German variety show, “Wetten, dass…” (I’ll bet that…).  An article in today’s NY Times, “Stupid German Tricks, Wearing Thin“, discusses the drop in popularity of the show which has run since 1981 and has been one of the highest profile shows on German TV.  I have to agree with the article that it’s astounding that such a dreadful show would have such a long run, given the grand cultural traditions in German literature and music.  Of course one could say the same for the popular German singers of recent decades such as Peter Alexander or Heino.  Could it be that the silly antics of “Wetten, dass..” (contestants bet with the host and others that they can win ridiculous challenges) are a release valve for the seriousness of German life? German society, like that of the US, is largely individualistic and values and rewards individual achievement. But for Germans, entertainment is making a mockery of that competitiveness.

“Public viewing”?

German or English?

Watching the German television news yesterday (Tagesthemen), it struck me that the use of English words stuck into the middle of German sentences is getting worse and worse.  The first was a reference in the broadcast to “der zweitgrößte airport” in Bulgaria  (second-largest), the second to a “Stasi connection“.  It’s not that there aren’t perfectly good and normal German words for airport (Flughafen) and connection (Verbindung) – it’s just that the English equivalents are used instead.  For me, the most perplexing aspect of this is that you will hear broadcasts in which an Angliscism such as “airport” will be used, then a few minutes later, the same presenter will use “Flughafen” instead – where is the vaunted German consistency?  If German TV execs like English so much, how about using subtitles rather than dubbing for the many instances in which interviewees speak English?  Or how about going further and, as is done in other European countries, subtitling all English language movies and TV programs?

It isn’t only on TV that this kind of strange and jarring code-switching goes on in Germany.  It’s particularly prevalent in advertising, where it’s maybe more understandable – use of (mostly American) English phrases gives the impression that the company or product is up-to-date.  It’s not surprising either that many Anglicisms show up in German hip-hop music.  I suppose it’s done on the news for the same reason, but I find it very annoying.  I imagine many native English speakers feel the same.

Particularly distressing are the English terms that either don’t exist in English or have a different meaning.  The German for cell phone – Handy – comes to mind as an example of the first and a term heard frequently during the recent European soccer championship – public viewing – for the second.  The phrase when used in Germany refers to an outdoor big screen set up to watch live TV (usually sports).  It’s not just nouns.  Here are some “German” verbs:  downloaden, leaken, trampen (hitchhike).  Of course, other languages import English expressions as well, especially technology terms, but I can’t imagine any others do it to the extent it’s done in German. It’s so common that there is a widely accepted word for the practice:  Denglish (Deutsch + English).  Are there reasons Germans do this more than any other culture?  Is it a sense of linguistic inferiority?