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Here’s what body language experts are saying about the first 2020 presidential debate

President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden during Tuesday's debate.
President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden during Tuesday's debate.Melina Mara/The Washington Post

The lecterns were on opposite sides of the stage. The moderator was yards away. The audience sat in socially distanced chairs. There was no pre-debate handshake.

And yet, there was still a lot for body language experts to unpack after President Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden faced off in the first of three presidential debates on Tuesday.

“I’ve been analyzing debates for well over 20 years — that was painful to watch,” said Patti Wood, Atlanta-based author of “Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma.”

Several body language experts reached by the Globe Tuesday night all agreed on several points: That Trump used age-old non-verbal tactics to attempt to come off as the alpha in the situation, using his stature, the volume of his voice, and even his clothing choices to gain one on his opponent.


Biden, for example, immediately gave off an aura of “being soft and comforting” with a “frilly” pocket square, while Trump’s bold, striped tie and larger flag pin came off as more “aggressive,” said Mark Bowden, author of “Winning Body Language.”

Former vice president Joe Biden during the debate.
Former vice president Joe Biden during the debate.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

And with no handshake in the time of COVID-19, he didn’t waste any time, Bowden said.

“Trump walked up quite slowly to his lectern to try and win that first moment — who has the most authority, who has the most power,” he said.

Several of the experts noted the aggressive tactics Trump took throughout the debate.

Wood said Trump seemed to make the conscious decision to “engage interpersonally by looking at Biden when he interrupted” him, engaging “in battle and attack, nonverbally.”

“Part of what made it painful is that it felt like it was bullying behavior, and we’re not used to seeing that behavior in a debate,” she said, going as far to suggest that Trump’s body language could even be triggering for someone who has suffered abuse.


President Trump walked on stage.
President Trump walked on stage.Morry Gash/Associated Press

Lillian Glass, a Los Angeles-based communication and body-language expert and author of “The Body Language of Liars,” said that based on body language, she thought Trump was the clear winner of Tuesday’s debate.

“His body movements matched his emotions and what he had to say,” she said. “He was serious when he should be; there was not a lot of levity. . . he seemed to come across very strong leader-wise.”

On the other hand, Biden “smiled when he was busted” and looked unsure of himself, she said, and used “phony, coached body signals,” such as pinching his thumb and finger together to illustrate a point. “Biden did not come across strong, especially as a leader — and Trump, no matter what you think about him, body language wise, he certainly did.”

Chris Ulrich, a behavioral body language expert based in Washington, D.C., said Trump’s gestures showed he was “on the attack today,” while Biden’s body language remained opened, portraying an overall calm demeanor.

“There were moments where Trump got to him, which for Biden undermines his approach as a statesman,” Ulrich said.

Former vice president Joe Biden.
Former vice president Joe Biden.Pool/Getty

However, Ulrich said one of Biden’s shining moments was how the former vice president would stare down the camera and speak directly to the audience at home.

“He was able to step out of that morass and speak to American people. It was a way for him to ground himself, and remind himself that this is who he was talking to — to get back on some kind of message,” Ulrich said. “By making eye contact with the camera, there’s a transference of power.”


Wood said that by looking into the camera, Biden “made the points to us; he spoke to the viewer.”

“He made that decision early on, and he continued with that,” she said. “I think he did that successfully in terms of reaching out and connecting with the viewers.”

However, Glass disagreed with that interpretation.

“It was not appropriate for Biden to look into the camera and start pandering to the audience,” she said. “When you’re debating, you look at the person you’re debating, or you look at the moderator. So that could be a turnoff to a lot of people.”

And while different movements could be left up to the viewer for interpretation, Bowden said what most people at home were probably thinking: At the end of the day, “nobody seemed very in control of this.”

President Trump.
President Trump.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JaclynReiss