Communication is, as we all know, so much more than words on a page. Anybody who’s sat through a speech, given a presentation or even done a media interview, knows that there is power not only in what you say, but how your tone and body language resonates with your message.
Politicians of course know this better than anybody. Who hasn’t watched a Prime Minister stumble over an awkward question and made a judgement based not on the words used but the fevered expressions on their face or the fervency of gesticulations from the lectern. Are they under pressure, coolly collected or a secure commander in chief?
Never is this more entertaining or elucidating than when politicians are in a room with each other. I’m always fascinated by who’s standing next to who, who’s sat back listening, who’s in charge and sometimes who’s frozen out entirely. These dynamics are perfectly displayed by the political handshake; always a tool of politicians to show fraternity and professionalism while establishing their ease and status.
The choreography of the political handshake has however been taken to another level by President Donald J Trump. No conventional politician, Trump has his own aggressive style and is clearly unafraid of displaying his ability to grab whatever he wants on the road to making America Great Again. His handshakes, where he’s deigned to offer them, have ranged from the painful to the ridiculous, and the responses from his fellow politicians have made for a fascinating study in the state of international relations more convincing than any communique.
Take the show of manly aggression with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This is a classic Trump-shake: the grab; the pull towards him; the fatherly pat; the huge Cheshire cat smile and full 19 seconds of grimace from the Japanese PM which ends in a wince and knowing look to the media. Trump shows himself the macho power-player while apparently remaining unaware or uninterested in the awkwardness of the situation.
So world leaders have learned to adapt to this new “arms race”. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came prepared and out-performed the President where it mattered – standing his ground in a physically confrontational clasp which showed that the younger leader was capable of posturing back. Trudeau’s style has caught on and become a feature of world leaders’ response to the power-playing behind Trump’s handshakes.
Latterly, the similarly fresh-faced Emmanuel Macron has perfected his handshake performance to such a sublime peak that it’s received a blow-by-blow analysis in several outlets.
For Macron’s first face-off the French President was so prepared that when it came time to for the men to formally introduce themselves it was Trump who tried to disengage first. This was followed up by the now famous ‘au revoir’ following the state visit in Paris that lasted 25 seconds and nearly ended up in injury to both men.
Of course all of this is patently ridiculous. But on another level these exchanges clearly have significance to both men, demonstrating – primarily to audiences in their own home countries – that they have both a metaphorical and literal grip on international diplomacy.
Almost as fascinating as the Trump-shake is the non-Trump-shake, where the President refuses to shake hands, or does so clumsily or while on the back foot – as if the person being greeted is unworthy of entering the power play in the first place.
Take his refusal to shake the hand of Hillary Clinton in the third presidential debate, or blatantly ignoring Angela Merkel at their first meeting. With the German Chancellor in particular, the direct snub was its own symbol: he was either unprepared to shake her hand, or felt a vestige of last minute doubt that a hyper-aggressive bear grip was really the right approach with this individual.
In addition, and although not a handshake, Trump’s grasp of Theresa May’s hand to lead her down some White House steps was its own symbol of power. Perhaps not a sign of a political machismo, but a protective gesture designed to suggest that the ‘special relationship’ was in safe hands.
There’s an obvious gendered aspect to the Trump handshake phenomenon too. While male politicians often try to match testosterone with more testosterone, women have simply been denied a handshake at all, often as a response to some perceived past slight. However Merkel may have had the perfect response when finally offered a hand: a startled face and wholly perfunctory conclusion.
What is most striking about Trump’s handshakes is that he hasn’t abandoned them amid the awkwardness they elicit from onlookers. He seems to really believe they establish him as the reliable protector of American interests and so we’re unlikely to see an end to them soon.
Personally, I’m delighted. Trump-shakes might be the height of ridiculousness but they do offer a commentary to the relationships of our current crop of world leaders and an insight into Trump which at times cut across the commentary of the White House Lobby to speak for themselves about the President’s priorities.
That said, of themselves, they’re unlikely to do much more for American diplomacy than continue to raise eyebrows. Perhaps that’s the lesson here: never let your body language out communicate you.
Eilidh Dickson is a Senior Account Executive at Indigo