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Professor: Comey’s body language reinforces ‘his message of being nonpartisan’

Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn in during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
When former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday, he could be seen turning his body toward the person speaking to him, rubbing his hands and fingers together, and occasionally raising his eyebrows. But largely, he sat impassively. What do these subtle body language cues indicate? We asked Laura Dudley, assistant clinical professor of applied behavior analysis at Northeastern, who watched the testimony closely, for her take.

What did you notice about James Comey’s body language throughout his testimony?

Anyone who’s watched Comey testify before probably wasn’t surprised by his body language during Thursday’s hearing. Any messages that he conveyed non-verbally were subtle. There were no grand gestures, no lifting of arms, no eye-rolling. What he did do, though, was maintain consistent eye contact with the person who was speaking to him at all times. He turned his body in his chair toward the person who was speaking to him, sending the message, “I’m listening to you.”

Comey also sat very upright in his seat and his posture didn’t really change over the course of the testimony. His hands tended to be in front of him on the table or in his lap. At times, Comey rubbed his hands and fingers together, a movement suggesting he might be comforting oneself. Considering the situation, self-soothing behaviors might be expected. For the most part, Comey’s facial expression was serious, with occasional eyebrow-raising and infrequent smiling.

Importantly, Comey’s body language did not seem to change significantly, no matter who was interviewing him. This may reinforce his message of being nonpartisan, or independent from any particular political party.

Interestingly, during his testimony, Comey himself discussed the body language that he had witnessed during a certain encounter with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions’ body language, Comey interpreted, seemed to say, ‘What am I going to do?’ When pressed, Comey could not recall the specific gesture that led him to that interpretation, but he indicated that it was the message he received through body language.

What stood out to you regarding James Comey’s tone, or the way he responded to questions?

One thing I noticed was that Comey did not fall into the trap of needing to fill moments of silence during the hearing. There’s a tactic that interviewers use, which is to allow for silence after a person responds to a question, rather than to fire off another question. Oftentimes, the person being interviewed will fill that silence by saying something off-topic, contradictory, or even incriminating. A great example of this may be seen on 60 Minutes. The interviewer asks a provocative question, the guest answers, and silence ensues. The person being interviewed is often inclined to fill the silence, it’s human nature. But Comey didn’t do that. He seemed pretty comfortable with the silence, and he didn’t contradict earlier testimony or ramble on about things that weren’t relevant.

Overall Comey seemed to use an even tone of voice throughout his testimony. The only time I picked up on a change in Comey’s tone was when he was repeatedly questioned about his own behavior after indicating his discomfort with being left alone with President Trump. In these instances—when he had to repeatedly answer similar questions about why he behaved the way he did—I noticed a change in his tone of voice. This change in tone may have been elicited by the stressful situation. His tone also revealed passion at times, particularly when he spoke about the FBI, his employment in the Bureau, and his love of country. Other than those moments, his tone was pretty even-keeled.

It’s important to note that non-verbal messages should be interpreted with caution and should be considered within the context that they occur. Additionally, someone may convey a particular message through body language, either intentionally or not, that is inconsistent with how he or she is feeling.

Why might it be important to understand a person’s body language?

When we play the roles of listener and speaker, it seems that we attend to three main things: a person’s words, tone of voice, and body language. Body language can include eye gaze, posture, facial expressions, hand or arm movements, and any other gestures made entirely using body parts.

There are plenty of studies suggesting that our body language trumps both the words we use and our tone of voice. In fact, the results of one study suggest that as little as 7 percent of a message is conveyed through words, and as much as 55 percent of a message is conveyed through body language.

In other words, if our words say one thing, and our body language conveys a different message, ultimately the body language will win.

When it comes to analyzing debates—and in today’s case, hearings—it’s no wonder, then, that there are plenty of people analyzing body language. In fact, there are now “communication consultants” who literally make it their business to analyze body language and even predict election outcomes according to body language.

It’s important to note that the research on body language is still emerging. While behavioral psychologists have explored the ability of others to interpret non-verbal messages, more research is warranted on the correlation between body language and feelings, emotions, and other internal states.

In the case of Comey, we might be particularly interested in his body language because here we have the former director of the FBI, and we don’t get the chance to hear what he has to say often. When he does speak, we’re going to tend not just to his words but to his tone and body language to screen what he’s communicating. Comey is someone we don’t have a lot of access to, so that hypes up our interest in analyzing all aspects of his communication.