Sit up and read what to make of Angela Merkel’s body language

By Nivriti Butalia

By now, everyone must have seen that photograph of Angela Merkel, Donald Trump and other world leaders at the G7 Summit in Canada earlier this week. We splashed it on page one of this newspaper. And retweet-wise, it’s been creating a storm.

That photo got me thinking a lot about body language, [and a little about the shade of blue of Ms. Merkel’s outfit (what was it, sky blue? Baby blue? Cornflower blue?)]. I wondered again about how we present ourselves, how we adapt to our surroundings, in fact, how well we breathe, and started thinking of who I know with the best, healthiest body language.

I connected Ms Merkel’s recent pose facing Trump with a sketch by Amy Kurzweil whose cartoons appear in The New Yorker. This one was about a couple in the kitchen: the woman, in ankle-length yoga pants, is standing with her back to the cabinets. She’s barefoot and has struck a semi John Travolta-like Saturday Night Fever pose, standing akimbo, one arm in the air, and the droll (presumed) husband says: “When you’re done power posing, we need to discuss the way we communicate.”

Both, the cartoon, and the Merkel photo could be set to the Katy Perry number, Roar (I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter/ Dancing through the fire/ ‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar… ‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar!)

I felt instinctively aligned with Merkel and her power pose. She was doing a great job of projecting that no-nonsense stance, a posture you have to assume sometimes with a petulant kindergartner. And full marks to her publicity team for picking that shot to feed the press. They’ve got a knack.

Remember the other epic shot in Germany, of the G7 summit in 2015, starring Ms Merkel, dressed in another fabulous shade, the back of Barack Obama’s head, a bench, and a lush green backdrop that needs only a picnic basket? (At least one news source likened her to Julie Andrews and captioned the pic, ‘The hills are alive with The Sound of Music’).

Naturally, I had to look up what the better-informed had to say about image and projection. Were body language experts having a field day endorsing the power pose, and all poses Merkel? Should we all now embrace the power pose to be taken more seriously at work? (Who’s up for a bit of Superman channeling before the next board meeting? Come now, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in! Hup! Hup!)

The Daily Mail quoted ‘body language expert’ Patti Smith as saying, “much can be deciphered just from Merkel’s fingers or Trump’s arms. If you look at her arms they’re locked, so she’s not only aggressive — she feels strongly about this and she’s not going to change her mind. Her fingers are a little bit relaxed. If they were more tense… it would signal that she wants to be more aggressive.”

About Merkel’s expression, Smith said the German Chancellor looked both “incredibly fatigued and slightly dumbfounded and slightly sad.” And that, “She’s got a mix of facial expressions… and all of them make sense in the context.” (That photo was apparently taken hours before Trump rejected the traditional joint statement that follows the summit).

But I wasn’t as interested in the body lingo of Abe or Macron or Trump — who was allegedly “being the king”, sitting, arms crossed, legs spread, a bit smug, a bit amused about god knows what.

Other body language experts quoted on the website Bustle, Patti Wood and Dr. Lillian Glass, agreed that Merkel was holding herself in a typically “male” posture — as if a female stance can be any less assertive. It was said that of all people in that photo, Merkel’s aggression was the strongest. They held different views about Merkel’s arm position. Glass said, “her shoulders are tense and raised in anger”. Wood said, “Merkel’s hands are relaxed and her arms are simply locked”. Whatever it is, posture was in the news big time.

Few of us will ever need to be in positions of as much consequence as Merkel or Trump, aligning our limbs in a way that sends desired messages to leaders of other countries. But body language shouldn’t come into play only if you’re considered a somebody. And with so much being extrapolated from one powerful photograph, it’s as good a time as any to think of how we project ourselves physically.

When so much is inferred from how we sit, stand, and the firmness of how we shake hands, why not think about those impressions we create, and how to correct lapses in body language?

My aunt, in her 70s, has told her husband to correct her whenever she hunches, a tendency she’s acquired of late, especially at the dining table. He obediently jabs her. She picks up her shoulders, doesn’t let the tendency become permanent. It’s a small thing. But it keeps me from slithering down my chair. You’ve got to tell yourself: sit straight. Ask people who’ve observed you, how do I stand, sit, come across?

I find myself interested in body language that projects inclusivity, friendliness, approachability. At a wedding a couple of months ago, I was standing in a circle of three people, including me. A fourth walked up to talk to one of us, and polite as he was otherwise, I couldn’t get over the rudeness of him showing his back to one person, blocking that person out completely! What is with such lack of awareness when an angle of your body disallows someone to be part of a conversation?

It’s as bad as when you’re introduced to someone and the person doesn’t look at you, zero eye contact, just a perfunctory handshake, and rushes to move on to someone more ‘important’ or — eeks! — ‘interesting’. That’s the power of body language. It can demean.

Trudeau is my favourite when it comes to body language. Never mind his wardrobe choices during his India trip — remember that orange kurta in Amritsar? — and his autopilot namastes. The man seems always warm and open when meeting anyone, not just minorities. Even if it’s an act for the camera, it’s a good one. Someone’s taught him well about leaning in, when to cross arms (rarely, unless you want to appear stand-offish and resistant), and — not that I’ve seen it, but I assume — even when to roar.

Nivriti is trying to spend more than a minute a day mastering the tree pose

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