Decoding the Body Language of That Warren-Sanders Standoff

By Patti Wood

There’s one moment from last night’s Democratic debate everyone is talking about: The tense exchange between Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren after the debate wrapped and the mics were off. As Warren approached Sanders, he held out his hand. She did not accept—beginning a 14-second, soundless dance with her holding and wringing her hands and him flat palmed gesturing, finger pointing and head shaking.

The two were probably talking about a disagreement they’ve had over the past couple of days—and one that continued during the debate. Warren maintains Sanders told her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t beat President Donald Trump. Sanders claims he never said that.

Let’s break this moment down.

As a body language expert, I have been researching and writing about handshakes for over 30 years. Handshakes at the beginning of a competition are a part of gamesmanship, signaling, “Hey we’re friends but, after we shake hands the game begins and let’s see who wins.” Handshakes at the end of an interaction say, symbolically, “Game over. We are friends again, let’s go for drinks.”

First, we see Warren give Joe Biden an “I am here and powerful, notice me” pat on his outer arm. (Outer arm pats with the hand on the audience side show dominant power.) Then she moves toward Sanders.

She makes a choice and rebuffs his handshake. She wants to engage with him, but on her terms. Note how she faces Sanders but stops short and folds her hands in front of her body. By initiating engagement at a fairly close distance, just outside the “intimate zone” (a space of 14 inches), and pointing many vulnerable parts of her body—the top of the head eyes, mouth, throat, upper chest, knees and toes—towards him, she is preventing him from dismissing her. The folded hands, up in front of her chest, and her ever so slightly bowed head show a certain amount of deference to his power, but also very effectively block him from fully engaging in a handshake or touch. (Meaning, he can’t pat her to show he is more powerful.) She doesn’t look mean or rude, but this is her way of saying, “We played the game and the game is not over. No drinks with you, Bernie!”

He feels her rebuff. You can see him reach out and point downwards towards her several times in admonition and then point back at himself.

He is telling her off, dismissing her request or statement. You can see that by his emphatic, flat, downward hand gesture and his energetic head bob downward. At the same time, he gets slightly closer and pats his right hand down and toward her, which shows her and us that there is a friendship there—that there is intimacy of engagement. Notice how she keeps her hands interlocked and held high over her heart. Whatever they are discussing, it’s emotional and speaks to their friendship because she feels the need to protect her heart.

He keeps it up till she flings her fingers up and out to stay stop. But, instead, he points his right hand and jabs at her heart like a dagger, flings his hands fingers out and down to dismiss her and turns and walks away. We don’t have a full view of her face but see how she is making eye contact and is fully engaged. Finally, she gives a quick shake no as Bernie turns away.

I have been analyzing the before and after handshakes of the debates for decades, and this is a moment I have never seen before—two candidates with a friendship displaying a nonverbal rift onstage. Warren was careful to remain neutral, not giving up her power but showing the desire to test the rift. She initiated the interaction and then set boundaries.

This moment will also make a deep lasting impression. The very last thing a candidate does as we watch him or her onscreen carries what is called the “recency effect.” The moment lingers in our memories and has a powerful influence on our impressions of the candidates. In this interaction, Sanders came across as a negative and slightly aggressive; Warren came across a bit better as she sought the engagement through guarded caution, leaving us to think she might have put down her hands if he had been nice.

Think all this isn’t important? It is. We choose our candidates based on their non-verbal behavior. In a study, Harvard undergraduates who viewed soundless, 10-second video clips of unfamiliar candidates in real races were able to pick the winning candidate at a rate significantly better than chance. But when the sound was turned on and students could hear what the candidates were saying, they were no better than chance at predicting the winner. Certainly, words matter, a politician’s viewpoint and plans of action matter, but research suggests that the nonverbal behavior has 4.3 times the impact in a message.

In my book SNAP Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, I write about the four factors that affect our impressions of other people: credibility, likeability, attractiveness and power. How did the candidates do?

Sanders and Warren were in a race to convey the most power.

Part of what made the exchange at the end so interesting was that Sanders and Warren both conveyed the most power throughout the evening.

Research shows we choose political leaders who present the most powerful alpha characteristics—people who are taller and bulkier, with lower, deeper voices. Using broad, wide gestures and conveying anger also make people appear powerful. Research studies suggests that we perceive people who get angry as having more competence and leadership capability than people who are warm and nice.

Of course, female candidates are at a disadvantage here. One of the controversies of the last two presidential campaigns is whether we can overcome this primitive preference and put aside our ingrained gender biases. We know that women in general are physically smaller than men, and women can easily be perceived as too angry or too aggressive when they try to convey power.

Of all the candidates, Sanders showed the most anger; he glared, scowled, leaned forward and reprised his signature chopping and pointing motions. (Anger increases the heart rate and blood pressure of the angry person speaking and the listener.) Warren, too, often displayed the common angry expression: eyebrows pulled down and together, inner corners down toward the nose. Both Warren and Sanders had a great deal of powerful energy, volume and forcefulness, using dramatic gestures, often weapon-like, a la Trump.

Sanders and Warren, as well as Klobuchar, all used their gestures to convey power and to show honesty. Their wide hand motions, like a symphony conductor’s, came just before or just as they said their message—a sign of honestly. When someone is lying, the timing of their gestures is off, a bit delayed, because the person needs time to think about the expression or movement that should accompany the sentiment they are lying about.

Sanders showed the most alpha space invasion, gesturing out and toward other candidates as he talked with or about them.

Compare this to someone like Steyer, who didn’t appear as confident as he should have. For much of the debate, he didn’t seem to know where to look—un alpha-like—finally settling in many cases to looking straight at the camera. My thought watching him was “he’s all alone and doesn’t interact with the others,” even though in his verbal messaging he agreed several times with others candidate’s statements. But he did smile just enough to score some likeability points.


Gender was Warren’s ally.

Warren came out strong at the beginning of the debate and did not let up throughout. Vocally, she comes down firmly at the end of the sentence while at the same time, her head movement is forward, indicating assertiveness and confidence.

But she also knew when to change her tone. Warren had a striking moment in the debate when she displayed true authenticity. As she discussed health care, specifically for babies and mothers, she showed a different level of energy and emotion in her voice. Then, most remarkably, her voice broke. We felt not just her pain, but also, because of the anger and indignation that preceded, her strong powerful maternal energy. That crack in her strong delivery was a rare moment when we see the power that a woman candidate can have. This is something a male candidate would have had a hard time trying to copy because of our old stereotypes that alpha men can’t show pain and tenderness.


Pete Buttigieg was the most likeable.

Likeable candidates are those who smile easily, laugh easily, and show a broad range of authentic emotion. We loved it when Sanders was the first to crack a joke and break the tension. And when Warren made a joke, held for the laugh and smiled.

But it was Buttigieg who won the night on likeably. He smiled the most of all the candidates, using wide-eyed facial expressions to display confidence and high energy. He also had a composed manner and warm, sing-songy cadence strikingly similar to Barack Obama—a tone that makes us feel tranquil and safe. The audience saw him as open and accessible, also showing a “calm” that we didn’t see in any other candidate on the stage. The strength of his delivery comes in handy because his plans aren’t as specific as the others candidates’.

Buttigieg’s facial expressions also had bilateral symmetry, which research shows are more attractive and convey credibility. Klobachar showed a nice range of emotions, strength, power and humor, but when her mouth twisted into a smirk, and she leaned to the side, lifting one shoulder higher than the other, she looked off balance. This posture can alert our central nervous system that there is something amiss.

What causes this asymmetry of expression? When someone feels an emotion in their primitive limbic system, they may show it with one side of their face and body before the more logical neocortex can contain the emotion. So, one side shows what the primitive brain really feels before it can be controlled by the cortex.


Biden’s self-admonishment weakened him.

Credibility comes down to evolution. During a first impression, we are hard-wired to ask, “Can I trust this person? Can I feel safe in their presence?”

Joe Biden uses his deep knowledge to engender credibility in the eyes of voters. If you listened to what he said last night, he had thoughtful and learned responses and rational plans of actions that showed his experience.

But his body language did not show the relaxed, calm confidence that he has displayed in past political races. He had very low energy out of the gate. His eye focus was odd all evening as his eyes were squinted, perhaps from the glare, which left him looking less powerful than the other candidates and at times vulnerable. I always watch the debates a second time with the sound turned off. If you had, you would have seen moments in which Biden paused, squinted and lowered his head—those were times when he made a verbal errors and had to correct himself.

Biden has dealt with a stutter all his life, which is a great challenge under stress. I studied audiology and speech pathology as part of my nonverbal communication graduate program and I am always impressed with someone who can work through this. But last night, as I discussed with public speaking trainer Steve Cohn, Biden was having more trouble controlling himself than usual. For example, there was an incident about half-way through the debate where Biden had to self-correct. He had said “poking our eye” when he meant to say “poking our finger in the eye.” When he self-corrected, his head went down and his eyes closed tightly (self-admonishment, internally going “oh no!”). There was a stutter that showed a very visible effort to center himself again. Biden did this over 5 times in the debate.

This is something I’ve also seen Trump do many times—much more frequently than Biden. Except when Trump does it, rather than self-correct, he stops, pauses, and changes the subject completely. Biden keeps going on topic on point, which makes him look not sure of himself. There seems to be some pain around it.