Mayor Anthony A. Williams has never been known for his star quality. “Maybe I’m not a matinee idol,” he told the Washington City Paper at the start of his first mayoral run, in 1998, “but I can run this city.” His undersized public persona may have smoothed his path from control-board patsy to elected office, but it makes understanding Williams a challenge. What exactly was going through his mind when D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp threatened to kill the stadium deal? Or when a congresswoman from Texas proposed rescinding D.C.’s gun-control laws? Does he see himself heading into the prime of his political career, or is he packing his bags as the mayoral campaign begins?
The City Paper showed several nationally prominent body-language experts pictures of Williams in public and learned that, though the mayor may not vocalize his feelings, he speaks volumes with his gestures.
The Bod Squad
Wendi Friesen is a body-language expert at spotaliar.com and a California-based clinical hypnotherapist specializing in behavioral change.
R. Don Steele is a California psychotherapist and the author of How to Date Young Women for Men Over 35. He currently runs steelballs.com, a Web site dedicated to teaching romantic body-language skills to men.
Susan Rabin is a New York–based relationship and flirting coach, author of How to Attract Anyone, Anytime, Anyplace, president of Dynamic Communications Inc., and director of the School of Flirting.
Patti Wood is a body-language professor in Georgia and author of Success Signals and People Savvy. Her work has appeared in Us Weekly, Cosmo, Jane, Seventeen, and other magazines.
Talking to reporters backstage after the State of the District address
Rabin: He’s kind of shrugging. He’s saying, “Hey, that’s the way it is. That’s the way I think, but I’m open for whatever opinions you might have.”…“Beleaguered” is a good word. It’s not nasty or frowning.
Wood: Classic shoulder shrug. The shoulders are raised slightly; the eyebrows are raised briefly at the same time. And the lower lip curls down and the palms are raised up. A dictionary definition of the shrug. This is generally given to show “I don’t know” or “How could I possibly answer that?” The shrug is a defensive posture given when someone feels helpless. The shoulders raise to protect the head from attack. The palms up also shows vulnerablity and symbolically indicates, “I do not have the answer in my hands: See, they’re empty.”
Friesen: [The] body language says a lot. Confident, cocky, confrontational. Open body position can indicate that a person has nothing to hide, if they’re telling the truth, or if they have no conscience, that they may be accustomed to holding a very open body position even when their statements are untrue.
Steele: His pose communicates: “I’m sincere. I did the best I could. So what do you want from me?” The upward-facing palms indicate sincerity….Further, his jacket is unbuttoned, indicating, “I am open to you, and I am not hiding or defending myself behind my jacket.”
There are no accidents when a politician dresses for his appearance. Note the dark, solid-color suit. This signals he wants to be seen as a regular Joe. Beyond the plain suit, he has donned a bow tie! This type of tie communicates: “I’m not a powerful guy—in fact, I am a bit of a nebbish.” Added to that contrivance is that his shirt is right out of the folded package delivered from the cleaner! The bow tie and the unpressed shirt are affected. The aim is to convince the audience, “I’m not powerful; I’m just little old me.”
Making a point during the State of the District address
Wood: This what I call the “Jesus on the cross” arm posture: The arms reach out with the palms showing, to be hugged, sometimes to receive applause or in response to applause. The smile on the face and the extension of the arms and the upward cupping of the hands lets us know he is enjoying himself and the kudos he is receiving.
Rabin: That’s obviously a very all-encompassing, welcoming, warm type of look. His head is up; his hands are out; a smile is on his face. It’s a very charismatic pose. [His body language says,] “Whatever you want me to do, I’m going to satisfy you, and I’m really happy to be among you.” It’s a very open position, not stiff at all….He doesn’t look nerdy in that picture.
Steele: The pose of sincerity. However, this time his jacket is buttoned, and he’s smiling. On top of that, he’s safely behind the podium. It is a way of saying, “Come, let’s reason together.” Done best by Lyndon Johnson, when forced to accept [that] public opinion was strongly against him.
Waiting for remarks by others about a proposed memorial to black Revolutionary War soldiers to end before the start of his weekly press briefing
Steele: Foot forward, leaning back, looking up—all indicate thinking and considering. However, hands behind the back do not fit with this cluster of reflection or thought-gathering, unless this is typical of him. In that case, hands behind the back communicate, “I am so powerful, nobody would ever attack me.”…Another interpretation of arms behind back is: “I am so powerful, I can be arrogant and you can’t do anything about it.
Another signal that is incongruent with a pose of reflection is pursed lips. Pursed lips indicate he is trying hard to not blow out a sigh of exasperation. And it sometimes indicates he is trying to not say something.
Wood: He is impatient and is trying to hold himself in check. The bend in the back leg indicates it is holding most of the weight. This stance combined with his other signals indicates his desire to back out of an unpleasant situation. His arms are behind his back. We show our emotions in our hands and try to hide our emotions by hiding our hands. Here his hands are so far back, the elbows are almost hidden as well. The shoulders are also pulled back—again, a retreating posture that says, “I am out of here.” As in his other photos, he shows a very expressive face. The lips are pressed together tightly and the lower lip is pushed up, almost covering the upper lip. This is a classic method of controlling anger, of showing resignation. He does this pressed-lip expression in a lot of these photos, so I believe it is a characteristic mannerism.
Rabin: That’s a confident pose. He’s got one foot in front of the other. His body language is very relaxed—the trouble with it is that he doesn’t smile. He closes his lips in a wry kind of way, and he’s looking off into the distance….It’s bordering on a little bit arrogant. It may be a little bit of impatience or thinking about what he’s got to say.
His suit is too tight in all of [the pictures], by the way. His buttons are strained, [which] doesn’t give the most Gentlemen’s Quarterly look. It looks like he’s got a nice physique; his tailor should have made the suit a little more fitting.
Showing off a temporary tattoo he received during a media appearance with Bruce Willis
Wood: This read is more straightforward. The mayor is holding out his tattooed hand away from his body with the fingers spread out and facing downward in a way that shows he does not like the tattoo. In fact, he finds it distasteful. His face shows his disgust mixed with an attempt [at] a covering smile. [It’s] interesting that this hand motion would be an effeminate gesture that would signal, “Stop that, girlfriend!” Though the mouth is open wide, showing the teeth in a halfhearted smile—the cheeks are even raised—the brow is down, and the eyes are almost closed as if something were sprayed in his eyes. The [upper] lip is raised as well and protrudes stiffly. The classic disgust face movements are there.
Outside of the Supreme Court talking to reporters about an eminent-domain case
Rabin: His hands look stiff. It looks like he’s tense about this particular question. He also seems to be looking past the reporter, [and is] always wearing a bow tie. That makes him kind of formal. That indicates a conservative approach or a well-mannered nature. It could be stiff, but it isn’t.
Steele: [He] appears to be jutting his lower jaw, but [it’s] difficult to tell. If so he is angry or being defiant. [His] attire is strange….[His] overcoat is way too big. Either he does not know about how to dress for success per John Molloy, or he ignores it at his peril. [The] bow tie, given these pictures, is his “signature.” A very unwise choice in the long run.
Wood: His mouth is shut to keep his negative feelings from coming out. I know it’s a negative feeling because his lower lip juts out in defiance and contempt. His eyes are looking up and to his left side, which can indicate that he is trying to create something new to say. There is an interesting mix of signals within his hand gestures. One [hand] is spread out in an expressive grasp. [It makes] him look as if he wants to grasp or even choke the reporter. His other hand is on his hip. Both hands on the hips indicate that something is not right and I need to defend myself. It is a male power posture.
Here, our experts disagree.
Rabin: I like him. It seems to me like he wants to please, and he takes the job seriously. This is a man who is willing to accept. He’s paying attention; he’s not bored; he’s not stiff.
Friesen: Overall, the body positions seem unnatural, as if this person is trying to show open, honest, sincere postures….My hunch is that they are practiced.
Wood: I would say after looking at all these photos and not knowing him or his personality from any other source that he is rather immature and often tries to hide his inappropriate displeasure and anger. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.