For body-language experts, Friday was sort of like Christmas.
After months of buildup, after investigations into Russian election meddling, after considerable analysis, two of the world’s most powerful men — President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia — finally met face to face at the G-20 summit.
Almost immediately, those who study such things say, the two began a nonverbal power negotiation.
Opinions on the interaction varied among body-language experts, but on one thing they agreed: For Trump, a man who has been routinely lampooned for the aggressive manner in which he shakes hands, Friday’s performance was quite out of the ordinary.
“Completely different,” says Tonya Reiman, author of the book “The Power of Body Language.” “Every single handshake I’ve watched — and I’ve watched them all — he’s the one who wants to be the dominant force; [he] literally makes you lose your footing.”
On Friday, America’s 45th president didn’t appear particularly aggressive at all. He seemed to keep a greater-than-normal distance when he shook hands with Putin. The violent pulling of his handshake-partner’s hand for which he’s become known was nowhere to be found. At one point during the handshake, he reached out and held the Russian president’s right arm.
In other words, it was all highly un-Trumpian.
“Most of the time, he’s got this warm welcome, he smiles, he comes right up to [people], he’s in their space,” says Lillian Glass, a Los Angeles-based communication and body-language expert. This time, she says, “You see Trump is very guarded. He doesn’t put all smiles out, and he doesn’t lean in to Putin — he leans away.”
To Glass, the reason is simple. “From what was swirling around, he doesn’t want to give Americans the wrong impression, and he doesn’t want to give the world the wrong impression,” she said. “He doesn’t want to appear chummy.”
According to Patti Wood, author of “Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma,” Trump appeared to show deference during the initial shake.
“I want you to notice Putin is standing up straight [in] his body position, and Trump is the one that walks toward him,” Wood said. “Trump is the one who initiates the handshake, and Trump is leaning his whole body — not quite in bow, but leaning forward as a bid to bow.”
For those who analyze such things, meanwhile, a few other key moments offered insights into the curious dynamic between the two men.
There was the initial height difference, for one thing — immediately apparent and probably surprising to some who envision both men as larger-than-life figures.
“There’s such a height disparity,” Glass said. “We think of Putin, because we never see him next to anybody, as being 7 feet tall. Big and tall and powerful. And then we see him next to Trump, and he’s a little guy.”
Then there was the point at which Trump reached over with his left hand to lightly pat Putin’s right arm during the handshake.
“The patting, notice it’s underneath and supportive, and symbolically says ‘I support you,’ ” Wood said, though she later allowed that the “left hand being used in a handshake is typically [meant to signal] power and control over the other person.”
Finally, there was Putin’s last-minute gesture, when he used his free hand to point an extended finger at Trump.
“The timing is interesting — that is, when Putin goes forward, and he points at the same time,” Wood says. “That is Putin’s bid to power because his hand is a symbolic weapon, so he’s doing a little shoot, a little bang.”
“It’s an authoritative move,” Reiman agreed. “You point at someone to demonstrate your authority, the power.”
The nonverbal jousting figures to continue, in some form, through the end of the conference Saturday. On Friday afternoon, a closed-door meeting between the two leaders stretched to more than two hours — four times its originally scheduled length.
Given the nature of the two men involved, and the contentious issues on their agendas, it’s no great leap to assume that both will be attempting to assert their dominance — in ways both verbal and nonverbal — throughout their time together.
But so far, Reiman says, Trump’s nonverbal efforts have failed to establish him as the alpha of the pair.
“We might notice that he’ll try over the next couple hours,” she said Friday afternoon. “But at this point, he’s not been able to win that battle.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.