When your words and your body language aren’t singing the same song…

Chris Nichol

Donald Trump… we know you’re lying. I’ve been experiencing an awkward state of unease for close to 50 years now. And I hadn’t been able to put my finger on quite what it was until I heard an interview on Radio NZ National’s Nine to Noon programme. Lynn Freeman was talking with Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy about body language, and especially about the significance of dissonance between words and actions.

Donald Trump provided her with a good example. She’s identified that he tries to adapt his body language to match his words. But it doesn’t work and that’s why he seems inauthentic.

Cuddy says that, like Trump, few of us have the cognitive bandwidth to successfully match what we’re saying with everything we’re doing if they aren’t naturally in synch. One of the remarkable findings of her research, however, is that if you fake a powerful person’s non-verbals you can convince yourself that you are, in fact, dominant. And if you practice making yourself small, you’ll lose confidence. “You can fake it ’til you make it,” she says. Practising inaccurate non-verbal body language can train us to think of ourselves in a new way. And this can be good.

But the question remains as to how effective a new identity, learned by practicing a particular set of non-verbals, can be. Politicians, for instance, need to appear powerful. But they also need to appear open to genuine engagement. Cuddy says Obama’s displays of power are effective because they demonstrate both confidence and an openness to others. He makes himself big both physically and temporally. He takes time. He is confident enough to speak slowly. He is relaxed. His largeness has room for others.

Trump, on the other hand, evidences a different kind of body language. He shouts. He is domineering. He is aggressive. He puts up a wall. So while both his self-image and his non-verbals proclaim power, the kind of power each proclaims is different: they don’t match up.

In fact, Cuddy tells us, the best way to discover if someone is trying to deceive us is to see if a person’s verbals and non-verbals are a match or not. That’s why Donald comes across to so many of us as both arrogant and falsely confident. It’s a defensive posture, says Cuddy, a way of stopping people from challenging him.

This insight has shed light on my fifty year long sense of disquiet. It goes back to John Fogerty, who composed the song which became the lead single from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River album (1969). Everybody but me, it seems, thinks “Bad Moon Rising” is the real deal, a truly great pop song. But I don’t like it. And I’ve never really known why.

Cuddy has helped me identify the nature of the problem: the dissonance between the lyrics of “Bad Moon Rising” and Creedence’s performance. Song and delivery are out of synch.

“Don’t go out tonight, it’s bound to take your life” John sings. But his chirpy, cheery delivery sends us a quite different message:

Get up, get a smoke, grab a drink and get dancing!”

Check out the video. The words and the performance (including that of the supporting cast) could hardly contradict each other more.

It’s all far too happy. There’s too much smiling and merry audience participation. It’s a classic case of verbal and non-verbal asynchronicity.

Not so in the version released in 1997 by apocalyptic Americana group Sixteen Horsepower. Bandleader David Eugene Edwards, the grandson of a travelling preacher, put his pedigree to gruesomely effective work. Creedence’s jovial pop song is transformed into a haunting description of a reality rich in threatened retribution. Illustrated primarily by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, this video clip says it all.

The music is an inspired combination of strange tunings, lurching rhythm, searing lap steel and gasping bandoneon. Coupled with Edwards’ strangely passionless singing, it constitutes a stark warning against unlocking the door lest the devil slip in and encourage us to climb into our dancing shoes. Much safer to stay at home and study the family Bible.

I’m grateful that Cuddy has given me the framework to resolve my confusion about the Bad Moon. But it leaves me in a new quandary. If we know Creedence’s version is inauthentic, why is it so popular? And if we recognise Donald Trump to be a bully and a liar, why was he winning primaries?

Until we can answer those questions it really does feel like a seriously bad moon is on the rise.


Chris Nichol is a Wellington-based communications consultant, theologian, alto saxophonist and singer. Most recently he’s been a member of the Dunstan Rangers whose CDs are available in all good second hand shops.

Radio NZ: Amy Cuddy – body language

One thought on “When your words and your body language aren’t singing the same song…”

  1. Hi Chris
    I think the reason why the original Creedance Clearwater Revival song was/is so popular is that it is ‘cocking the snoot’ to use an old English term at Death. Yes, all these bad things can and will happen somewhere and each of us will die one day, but we can choose not to be morbidly obsessed about it and still live with joy despite or even because this. Hence, when I see CCR singing the original version I don’t sense any dissonance in their message, music or mannerisms. As for Donald Trump…yes he is acting, everyone can see he is acting but his ability to “entertain” is more important to many voters than anything else. And if credibility was your criteria for choosing your next USA President does Hilary Clinton win on that score? The paradox is that Trump is a credible fake actor.

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