Nonverbal communication expresses power and dominance. In public, professional settings, who gets to touch whom and the nature of that touch play out and define gender relations. Because it’s typically subtle, people are often unaware of this dynamic. When it’s more obvious, those in the “one down” position see it clearly, and those in the power position remain oblivious due to their sense of entitlement. The stereotypical male boss/female secretary and male customer/female waitress interactions illustrate this over and over again. Of course, as gender roles change, the accompanying nonverbal behaviors change with them. Hillary is the perfect example. Let’s track the changes, from old to new.

This clip from Mad Men illustrates my point about entitlement (see :40 – :50). Mad Men is a wonderful show to use for examples of entitlement because it nicely captures the rigid gender roles in the 50s and 60s cultural milieu of the 50s and 60s. Peggy, a copy writer who is often treated as a secretary (skip over the politics of being the secretary), asks her boss Roger for her own office. Roger reaches out, grabs Peggy’s elbow, and attempts to guide her down the hall. She resists. He calls her aggressive, she demurs, he replies that her assertiveness is cute and contrasts her to his male staff who lack the balls to ask for an office. Now, having balls is a good thing in the Mad Men world, unless you’re a woman. The scene illustrates the gendered power dynamics of touch in a professional context.

Betty Castor

Touching someone the way Roger touched Peggy is significant. For example, I attended several USF graduation ceremonies in the late 90s when Betty Castor was president. Castor managed the ceremony by touching each student who walked across the stage. After shaking hands, she would guide the student very firmly with a hand on the back, usually at the small, and the other on the elbow, or by gesturing to the stairs leading off the stage. Now male presidents perform this task without drawing attention; it’s natural, expected, and also practical. Castor’s firmness stood out, though, perhaps because it is so unnatural for women or because she was especially directive about it.

Hillary and the Diplomatic Handshake

Now anyone who knows me knows I am a Hillary fangirl. She has consistently and controversially challenged gender norms throughout her public life. True, she’s had some lapses, like the chocolate chip cookie makeovers and the Democratic primary tears. Still, she carves out a space for herself in both obvious and subtle ways.

So observe this video of her meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for peace talks. Hillary’s nonverbal behavior in this clip is stellar. The video opens with the required diplomatic handshake.  Abbas initiates but Hillary outguns him. Instead of waiting, she steps in to bridge the distance, and then pulls Abbas close to wrap her arm around his back. Admittedly, the positioning of the handshake prevents Abbas from controlling the sideways embrace, but that doesn’t shake her. Instead of standing by passively, she acts the way any man would, without blinking an eye, as if it were natural and expected. Though there’s the bodily awkwardness of all diplomatic encounters, this interaction doesn’t appear different from any other. It’s just Hillary doing her thing.

The cultural transformation from Peggy and Roger to Hillary and Abbas is invisible to many folks since most nonverbal behavior operates unconsciously. Observers probably don’t recognize that Hillary’s actions contradict gendered norms, perhaps because the norms have changed so much, or perhaps because it’s just Hillary and we’ve finally reached the point of comfortableness with her, so she don’t raise anyone’s eyebrows anymore. It’s a good thing either way.

(See seconds :01 – :12.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.