Saturday, February 02, 2008

Observations on Barack Obama & Hillary Clinton's PDA

The recent PDA displayed between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton hasn't escaped anyone's attention in the national media, and being an enthusiastic observer of primates and their patterns of touch – it struck me too.


I think it's natural to make assumptions about the status of the relationship between two people seen touching. It's what we do as human beings, as primates. We observe others for signs of who is related, allied. The most obvious give away is touch. Primates don't touch just anyone, and neither do people. So when CNN started musing about whether they were going to be running mates, it didn't surprise me.

BUT – What you may not have picked up on is the dominance aspect of their touch.

Touch for humans as well as other primates, is as much a display of affection as it is a display of dominance. Here, it is significant that he initiated the touch and also stood over her while he pulled out her chair. While it was a nice gesture, to touch her shoulder and pull out her chair, by doing so he signaled that he is in control. The more powerful person in a dyad is the one who has the license to touch. That's why observational studies have found over and over again that men initiate touch far more often than women do. Like it or not, we still live in a male-dominated society.

It's important to not read into that one interaction too much; I am sure she has touched him first plenty of times. I just think it's interesting that the same interaction that has sparked so much talk about their running "mateship" is also one that contains unambiguous cues to dominance.

10 comments:

DigitalMayhem said...

great read!

peggynoir said...

Interesting article, especially in light of Maureen Dowd's recent piece re: another touching incident between Obama and Clinton.

Field Notes said...

Thank you for pointing me to her column, I really enjoyed it. Dowd and I seem to be on the same page with this one.

peggynoir said...

Perhaps Clinton would be well served to pull out Obama's chair at the next debate?

Field Notes said...

Well, that would be an overtly masculine role, which in her case would be bad. Everybody already knows she's a bit of a ball buster.

What she should have done and should do is always touch him back. That restores the power balance better than anything else would.

It's nonreciprocal touching that signals dominance, control, and power. By immediately returning the touch, the recipient reclaims some.

Morgen said...

Very insightful! I love paying attention to body language too.

peggynoir said...

Fantastic information. Thank you for elaborating further on these very interesting ideas.

Felicia said...

I was always taught in business to be the first person to touch another because that will set you as the dominate one in the relationship. Interesting :)

kimono hime said...

While working for a dog trainer some years ago, I was shown the various ways dogs will do this in a group. It still infuriates me that most people assume a male dog is "gay" if it "humps" another male dog, even if the two are neutered. It's a dominance thing, plain and simple.

Then again, here in the sexually repressed and homophobic US, we tend to think two men are homosexual if they walk down the street holding hands, but in some countries (such as Islamic-dominant ones) this is considered the social norm.

Field Notes said...

excellent points kimono hime - you are right to point out that 'mounting behavior' is about dominance. Primates mount each other to express dominance too.