When disaster strikes, a prime minister needs to display emotional skill

Theresa May addresses the nation, March 22 2017. Richard Pohle/The Times/PA Wire/PA Images

When nations are hit by disturbing events such as the attack on Westminster on March 22, they trigger a range of emotional responses. They not only seize the attention of the nation (and the world), but also spur people to share their impressions and concerns with others, and motivate them to engage in actions that may be shaped and organised collectively.

In such times, people tend to turn to prominent figures and leaders to speak on their behalf, or to perform what researchers call “emotional labour” – a term introduced by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 – to manage their feelings.

When faced with a lethal disaster or attack, political leaders also have to display their mastery of emotional performance. The pressure is especially so for female politicians who are expected to demonstrate care and consideration for others while simultaneously appearing strong and competent – to both voters and other leaders.

As women who have been called upon to combine cool steadfastness and emotional engagement in response to a national crisis, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May are in a category of their own. And when May was recently called upon to put these emotional skills to the test in a televised statement after the Westminster attack, her performance was arguably more skillful than even one of Thatcher’s most important.

Tough talk

During the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984, Thatcher and most of the party’s leadership were staying in the city’s Grand Hotel. In the early hours of October 12, it was hit by a massive IRA bomb that killed five people and would have killed Thatcher herself had she been in a different part of her suite.

Thatcher’s speech to conference at 9.30am that same day is now arguably the template for the sort of public statement British leaders must deliver after a terrorist attack. In it, she condemned the bombing as “first and foremost an inhuman, undiscriminating attempt to massacre innocent, unsuspecting men and women staying in Brighton for our Conservative conference”. She immediately followed this with: “Our first thoughts must at once be for those who died and for those who are now in hospital recovering from their injuries.”

May echoed Thatcher’s lines on the depravity of the bombing in her March 22 statement, in which she described the Westminster attack as “sick and depraved”. But where Thatcher and May’s statements differ is in their tone.

While the content of May’s statement for television was similar to Thatcher’s conference speech, May also mentioned the family members of victims and signalled a hint of genuine distress, described by some in the media as “cracking” or “shaking at times” with emotion. This is a crucial difference from Thatcher: whereas she briefly gave the surface appearance of caring for others but then pressed on with the Tory conference and her speech without displaying much in the way of concern, May actually seemed to be trying to control an underlying distress.

Such indications that vulnerable emotions may break through a veneer of composure, resolve or toughness often indicate integrity and caring to viewers regardless of their political affiliation. This is a core part of a leader’s job in these moments.

During times of crisis, people are often hungry for the latest information and measured speeches promoting unity and expressing admiration for emergency services play a dual role: they not only reinforce the humanity of the speaker in praising others and displaying gratitude but also suggest emotional authenticity. This is why, if handled well, such displays during crises can increase popularity – even that of nationally unpopular leaders.

Emotional rituals

There is, of course, much more to the collective impact of such events on a large city than a televised speech reiterating the virtues of unity, restraint and “carrying on as normal”. As happened after the 2015 Paris attacks, further ceremonies, rituals and gatherings are important for people to spontaneously feel, display and labour with their own mixed feelings of defiance, grief, anger, gratitude and pride.

Television viewers will also feel solidarity with victims and their families despite only seeing televised accounts of others; they can feel genuine distress after such events. It’s important not to underestimate these vicarious emotions, which can be shared among people with complex group and individual identities. The vocabulary leaders use in their statements provides a useful script for their citizens; it can be reproduced in workplace emails and messages to friends and family, and in invitations to engage in local performances of national rituals such as scheduled minutes of silence.

London comes together after the Westminster attack. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

When Thatcher told her audience in Brighton 32 years ago that “we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined”, she only appeared to be emotional when she expressed her “deep gratitude” to emergency services, and the staff of both the hotel and the party: “As prime minister and leader of the party, I thank them all and send our heartfelt sympathy to all who have suffered.” Her resolve was met with extended applause, driving home the message that the terrorists had failed – but some viewers might have questioned how much she cared about everyone affected.

After May’s Downing Street statement, much was made of her message that Londoners would defy the attack by going about their business. But this is just one dimension of the public experience of such events. Citizens don’t simply conform to May and Thatcher’s “business as usual” line; perhaps even more so than they did in 1984, they need to take time out to share their reactions with others, to engage in collective expressions and join in rituals of solidarity, and to reaffirm what they have in common.

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