Jeremy Corbyn vs Theresa May: what the body language tells us

May takes the stage. PA

There were no major gaffes when Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn faced a grilling from a live studio audience and notoriously combative journalist Jeremy Paxman on May 29, but their body language was at times telling.

The two didn’t come face to face, instead taking questions from the public and then Paxman in this broadcast organised jointly by Sky and Channel 4 just over a week before election day.

In terms of body language, Corbyn did slightly better under pressure than May. He was Mr Zen – relaxed and smiling graciously, even when faced with criticism or rudely interrupted.

Just chilling with the boys. PA

A lot of attention has been given to the moment when Corbyn appeared to give the middle finger gesture to a member of the audience. He had been confronted with quite a personal question about his leadership skills but he remained jovial and even jokey in his response, except for this subtle body language display. This gesture shows that Corbyn is not passionless or passive, but his self control in communication seems fairly exemplary.

But May surprisingly held her own, given her usual avoidance of direct public interaction. She generally held up well when questioned, even when her interrogators were confrontational. Paxman essentially called her a “blowhard”, and her response was fairly composed.

However, she did lose her composure when an audience member reiterated the quote about her being a “bloody difficult woman”. May has actually used this phrase to describe herself in the past but her body language when questioned about it reveals that she is perhaps not as comfortable with the image as she would have us believe.

The trademark grimace. Sky

During her answer, her trademark grimace repeatedly flashed across her face. A grimace is a strong sign of disapproval, disgust and pain, which translates onto May’s body as a sign of mortification. This implies that she genuinely wants to be liked – as well as being seen as a force to be reckoned with.

Hand gestures

Concordant with this desire, May’s body language is much more “schooled” or rehearsed than Corbyn’s. Most of all, she uses hand gestures that are taught to politicians. When gesturing in time to her speech, she puts her thumb to her forefinger, which is an affectation taught to politicians to avoid aggressive finger pointing. She also extensively uses open hand gestures with palms facing upwards. These can be natural but are also recommended by body language coaches because some research has shown that people like speakers who make this gesture.

Making a point without making a point. Sky

Corbyn made more understated and less rehearsed hand gestures (although his voice was strident when aroused). This suggests that he is probably not taking much, if any, advice from body language coaches, and that he is very confident of his communication and his ability to respond naturally in the moment.

In contrast to recent televised UK debates, in this interview format the two politicians genuinely addressed their answers to the questioners (the audience and Paxman). Quite a few politicians (noticeably David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon) focus their gaze down the barrel of the camera, which is stagey. These interviews showed that May and Corbyn are capable thinkers, and also, despite current trends towards extensive body language training for celebrities, that they are both fairly genuine in their beliefs.

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