Peter Collett is a former Oxford University fellow and an expert on body language. He is the author of How to Tell What People Are Thinking
One of Donald Trump's famous eccentricities is his own brand of handshake – the yank-shake. Typically, the U.S. President does this by raising his elbow so that his hand swoops down on the other person's, which he then grabs and pumps furiously, occasionally yanking the person toward him. An alternative version involves him getting hold of someone's hand and jerking it around in a circular motion. Mr. Trump probably sees his own behaviour as an expression of his natural enthusiasm, but its true purpose is to allow him to impose himself on the other person – literally and figuratively, to throw them off balance.
We saw this some months ago when Shinzo Abe visited the White House. Seated side by side, Mr. Trump clasped the Japanese Prime Minister's hand in an extended, 19-second handshake, complete with several yanks and domineering pats on the top of the hand. When it was all over, the look of undisguised relief on the Japanese Prime Minister's face was clear for everyone to see. But the yank-shake was noticeably absent from the first formal meeting between Mr. Trump and Justin Trudeau, because the Canadian Prime Minister succeeded in neutralizing Mr. Trump by stepping into his personal space and bracing himself by clasping Mr. Trump's upper right arm with his left hand. In this round of the strong-arm stakes, Mr. Trudeau was definitely the undisputed winner.
When Mr. Trump embarked on his first foreign tour, everyone was wondering whether he'd be up to his old tricks again. On his visit to the Vatican, would he be able to resist the temptation to pat the Pope condescendingly on the hand, or would he try to strong-arm German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the other European heads of state?
As it happened, his handshake continued to play a prominent role, but not necessarily in a way that anyone would have expected. In Brussels, at a rather stage-managed meet-and-greet, Mr. Trump, together with a phalanx of several other European leaders, including Ms. Merkel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, were strolling toward the new French President, Emmanuel Macron. As they approached each other, it was evident that Mr. Macron was lining up to engage Mr. Trump first, when without any warning, he veered off and headed toward Ms. Merkel. Mr. Trump was understandably surprised – possibly even upset – by this change of course, because he immediately presented both his palms to Mr. Macron, as if to say, "C'mon buddy, I thought we were going to greet first!"
Having greeted Ms. Merkel with a kiss, Mr. Macron then shook hands with Mr. Stoltenberg, who was beside Mr. Trump, making it look as if the U.S. President was about to be greeted next, when all of a sudden – and as if to add insult to injury – Mr. Macron turned away from the Mr. Trump and shook hands with someone else!
When the French President eventually reached the U.S. one, Mr. Trump proffered his hand in the palm-up position. Strictly speaking, this is a submissive gesture because it offers a symbolically dominant role to the other person. But Mr. Trump doesn't do this because he's feeling subordinate. Not at all – the reason he presents his hand palm-up is to lull the other person into a false sense of security. Because the moment Mr. Macron took his hand, Mt. Trump began to pump the handshake in a circular fashion, making it very clear that he was the one in control. Recognizing that he was very much on the receiving end, Mr. Macron made a half-hearted attempt to dampen the dramatic gyrations that Mr. Trump was inflicting on the handshake by grasping his arm with his left hand.
But what happened next was even more revealing. Having completed the handshake, Mr. Macron gave Mr. Trump a parting pat on the upper arm. Now the point about pats in politics and business is that they're reserved for the senior person – they're what psychologists call a status reminder.
Here, the unwritten rule is that the senior person reserves the right to touch the subordinate person, and if that rule is violated by the subordinate person, then the senior person has the right to perform the final pat. And that's exactly what happened between the two Presidents. When Mr. Macron patted him, Mr. Trump knew that this was another attempt to upstage him, so he reasserted himself by patting Mr. Macron on the upper arm, then turned away and exited from the scene. Just in case the little upstart tried to chance his luck and come back for another pat!
It's often through subtle little gestures like these that politicians try to jostle for position in the pecking order. Handshakes, patting, facial expression, patterns of gaze – they all play a crucial role, not only in deciding who's on top and who's below, but also in projecting a convincing image of political leadership.