Mixed signals: Putin-Trump meeting deconstructed

US President Donald Trump meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.
US President Donald Trump meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - What are the "tells" when two of the world's most powerful leaders meet? A British expert found mixed signals in the body language of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on Monday (July 16).

British behavioural psychologist Peter Collett found both dominance and vulnerability among the tell-tale signs shown by the Russian and US presidents ahead of their talks in Helsinki.

"It's not as though one is trying to lord it over the other and the other is being obsequious... What we have is the two men producing mixed signals," Collett said.

"Neither of them appear at ease in each other's presence," he said.

Here are some of the key giveaways from the pair's meeting in front of the cameras, according to Collett:

Entering a room

Trump showed a "bovine swagger" entering the room where the two confronted the cameras, Collett said. But Putin walked ahead in a sign of greater confidence. Trump ushered Putin to his seat in an attempt to "take control of things".

The handshake 

Trump came in for the first handshake with the palm facing slightly up, a sign of respect. "This is Trump saying: 'Why don't you take the upper position?'" Collett said.


This is an unusual choice, the psychologist said, as Trump was sitting to Putin's right and could therefore have gone for the more dominant palm-down handshake.

"He seems to make a habit of not imposing himself physically on Putin, out of respect for the man whom he considers equal and whom he's very eager to mollify and please."

'Steeple gesture' 

Trump's upside-down steeple with his hands - where the fingers are making a little inverse "roof top" - is a trademark and it was on show against at the meeting with Putin.

Collett called it a "high-dominance gesture".

"It is what people do when they feel superior to people around them or when they feel inferior and want to boost themselves," he said, adding that former British prime minister Tony Blair used to do it during his meetings with then US president George W. Bush.

Tense chin

Collett said Trump may have tensed his chin after shaking Putin's hand. "Chin tensing is an interesting tell because it reveals that the person is feeling vulnerable," he said.

"Maybe it's because Trump didn't get a chance to dominate the situation, maybe because he thought it was wise not to. You can see he's not feeling comfortable," he said.

"We pucker our chin when we unconsciously feel we're going to be attacked... It's a vulnerability tell." 

Asymmetric dominance? 

Putin also offered contradictory body language.

Collett said the Russian leader adopted "an asymmetric posture, which is highly relaxed and therefore dominant".

"But he's also paying a lot of visual attention on Trump, thereby conferring on him the status that he feels he deserves," he said, adding that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was less attentive when the two met in June.