Body Language of Kim Jong-un and Trump. What are they really saying?

With the big meet this week between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, I wanted to share some observations on snippets of video footage. 

While there are hundreds of nonverbal signals throughout the footage, mentioning them all would be like analysing every spoken word. Instead, I've selected a handful of noteworthy signals. Let's start with the initial greeting and progress to potential 'red flag' moments!

The Handshake

As usual, Trump indulges in his unique domineering handshake style–tight, quick and well drawn out. This time it's a 12-second handshake. Not the longest we've seen, but long enough to make anyone feel awkward.

What's also noteworthy is the level at which it takes place. Again, not unusual for Trump, he likes to keep it close, pulling the recipient in, without much give in his elbows. Notice how high Kim's arm crosses his body. It's chest high.

Try that for a moment. Does it feel odd for a handshake? I'm a short 5'2", so most people I greet are taller than me, yet I can't say I recall having to reach my arm up this far for a handshake. Most people are willing to reach out, extending their arm, nonverbally signalling they are willing to come to my level–we're starting out on an even playing field.

In this initial handshake and several others thereafter, Trump fails to yank Kim towards him–another Trump handshake quirk. However, we do see this later in the meeting, after the signing of the document, at 6:36 in the video below.

The Steeple Versus Interlocked Fingers

At 4:24 in the next video, Kim crosses his arms over his body, interlocking his fingers. The tips of his thumbs fidget, touching together, before disappearing, downwards, into his hands. At the same time, Trump holds his pose, his finger and thumb tips, touching, in the steeple position. These two behaviours are at opposite ends of the confidence spectrum. 

When we feel the slightest level of discomfort we react, protecting ourselves with an instinctive blocking behavioural response. Usually, the behaviour involves the torso, the part of the body containing our most vital organs–worthy of protection. There's nothing wrong with this per se, Kim isn't displaying anything unusual. All it does is signal some level of discomfort.

The interlocking of the fingers also signals discomfort. And when the fingers are straight, the discomfort is elevated. Add to that the fidgeting thumbs (pacifying behaviour) and their sudden disappearance and we have a total of four nonverbal cues signifying discomfort. 

Given the circumstances of the meeting, the media presence and the world watching, most people would feel a level of discomfort, so we shouldn't raise too much of an eyebrow. It may not be in line with what we usually see of political leaders in front of the media, but perhaps Kim Jong-un hasn't had the body language training that most political leaders have had. Although these behaviours are an innate reaction, if we're aware of them and what they communicate, we can avoid them. 

Let's look at Trump's steeple. While we do steeple without consciously thinking about it–when we feel confident–we can also steeple voluntarily to give the impression of confidence. Many people are aware of the steeple and the meaning behind it and it's often used deliberately, even if there isn't real confidence behind it. 

That's not to say Trump isn't confident–it could be a genuine gesture. What's more, the environment he's in (the media and the world watching) isn't unusual for him. And with familiarity, comes confidence.

Trump does come across as confident in most circumstances we see him in. However, I suspect, his behaviours overall–his bullish, narcissistic tendencies–come from a place of deep-rooted insecurity. 

We know that Kim–the regime–also has these tendencies. Again, I suspect, coming from a place of deep-rooted insecurity. But in the video footage captured at this meeting, we see real human emotions coming from Kim. Emotions that we all display when we're feeling vulnerable. Somehow, this human element feels at odds with the inhumane dictatorship we know of North Korea. 

What other real emotions can we see? One of my favourites...

The Eyelid Flutter

In the same video footage above, at 4:31 we see a very slight, quick, eyelid flutter. This is at the point where Kim looks the most stressed. We see an eyelid flutter in people when they are dealing with intense emotions, for example, during grief, recalling an emotional event, or struggling with inner turmoil-an internal 'oh my gosh!' moment. In context, this fits. Is the stress of the moment getting too much for Kim?

Disgust and Contempt Microexpressions–on Signing!

I can't ignore this, perhaps one of the most significant moments. Unfortunately, the video footage seems to be a little pixelated at this point each time I watch, but what I think I'm seeing is a microexpression of disgust, immediately followed by contempt. This occurs at 3:20 in the video below, just as Kim signs. If I'm correct–this is interesting and very telling. 

I have wondered whether Kim has a cold, he seems to have laboured breathing. It could be stress, a cold or both. The reason I bring this up is that there's a point earlier in this video footage (1:10), where Kim clearly shows the action units (muscles group working together to create an expression) of disgust.

There is no doubt that the disgust action units are activated, but I'm in two minds as to whether this is just the way Kim sniffs. Is my brain filling in with details, or can I really hear a sniff at this point? Do you hear it?

When most people sniff, they don't activate the disgust action units–unless they are smelling something disgusting. However, if they have a blocked nose, it's possible. So here lies a potential red flag. Is it simply a sniff or is it a microexpression of disgust? What is the translator saying at this exact point? 

Pay Attention

While spoken words are deliberately constructed, many nonverbal cues are reactive innate responses, including some mentioned here–blocking and stress behaviours and the eyelid flutter. Since these cues are reactive and delivered within the moment, they are more honest than words as indicators of truth. If we only pay attention, we can gain a significant level of insight into the thoughts and emotions of others.