Face Feedback: a Wonderfully Expressive Dimension of Debate

A number of pundits are critiquing Donald Trump’s dramatic facial gestures during the debates. More often than not he is criticized for making faces not only while he is speaking, but also while listening to his opponents in the primary debate.*

To me, facial expressions are a wonderful communication device, particularly in discussions or debates. Compared to people talking over the other person, or interrupting their comments, pulling a face allows the speaker to continue, but also know what you think about their comments. Yes, it can be distracting, but it can also be real time informative feedback.

From 1974-79, in one of the very first strong collaborations I was involved with in academia, I had a colleague who was really gifted at such expressions. We were in a small group of about six co-principal investigators on a well funded project at what was then the Public Policy Research Institute (PPRO) at the University of California at Irvine. The project was led by Professor Kenneth L. Kraemer, the Director of PPRO, but included, among others, Professor Jim Danziger, the late Alexander Mood (famous for the Coleman Report), the then doctoral student, now professor, John Leslie King, and the late Rob Kling, a professor of artificial intelligence, but a gifted social scientist as well.

Rob Kling
Rob Kling circa 2001


Well, Rob was famous for letting you know exactly what he thought of your ideas as you were speaking. It did not take long for all of us to pick up on his communicative style, as it was so effective, and hone our skills at telling everyone around the table our feelings about the evolving conversation. I found this engaging, helpful, and efficient, albeit frustrating at times.

So instead of looking at your mobile phone, or acting like you are paying attention, or letting your eyes glaze over in a discussion, express yourself through your facial gestures. Even if you can’t get a word in edgewise, you can speak volumes through an expressive facial gesture.

*See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/from-debates-first-bell-trump-makes-it-clear-he-plays-by-his-own-rules/2015/08/06/596e8ee8-3c7a-11e5-8e98-115a3cf7d7ae_story.html

Comments are most welcome