Truth, lies and body language in the Caucasus

October 28, 2020

You can tell a lot about people from looking at their body language. A few days ago, Euronews’s Global Weekend coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict included a fascinating split screen of the leaders of Armenia (Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, pictured) and Azerbaijan (President Ilham Aliyev). Pashinyan is surrounded by uniformed troops on high alert, and gesticulates franticly, forefinger jerking repeatedly down as if to lash his audience – and, by extension, his Azerbaijani opponents, into submission or defeat. Aliyev appears cool and collected, measuring his words, the picture of a calm and efficient administrator, writes Martin Newman.

The contrast was so extreme that it prompted me to look further at these two men. I’ve coached many world leaders for their platform and media appearances, and I know that posture, tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions can reveal truths that transcend mere words.

Their backgrounds could not be more dissimilar: Pashinyan the campaigning journalist, never happier than in a crowd, megaphone in hand; Aliyev the second-generation politician, a veteran of the deadpan world of international diplomacy. Some hours spent reviewing footage of different interviews – Euronews, Al JazeeraFrance 24CNN, with Pashinyan speaking in Armenian and Aliyev in English – mainly serve to confirm first impressions.

We see Pashinyan’s jerking finger, and his eyebrows which dance with consternation whenever an awkward question or inconvenient fact at odds with his narrative is raised by an interviewer. When excited or under pressure his voices rises in pitch until it is almost shrill.

Mostly, watching Aliyev during these interviews reinforces the image of the calm administrator. Rarely raising his voice, rarely using an expansive gesture, the President comes across as a conservative figure of stability. Yet there’s one slightly unexpected detail: the eye movement. Does this mean – as some experts would say – that for his urbanity, the President can come across as evasive?

They say that ‘the eyes are the window of the soul’; more accurately, in my experience, they are the mirror of the brain. People who are actively thinking are more likely to move their eyes than those who are reciting a pre-prepared lesson. I’ve also noticed, curiously enough, that when someone speaks in a language which isn’t their own, that mental effort also tends to add to eye movement. When you see this, it’s as though the speaker is literally ‘looking for the right words’. Despite being able to speak English (and having conducted interviews in the language in the past), Pashinyan appears not to trust himself except in his native Armenian when the stakes are so high.

One further detail has caught my eye, and it’s a comparison of hand gestures. We have already seen Pashinyan’s accusatory finger-pointing. At times, he is able to rein that theatrical energy in, but frequently it bursts out in large, dramatic gestures. Meanwhile, Aliyev’s hand gestures are controlled and measured, carefully presenting a case or, with a forward-moving half-folded hand, outlining forward steps in a process. The English language is rich in phrases to describe character using a body language metaphor. Looking at the two leaders, it’s hard to avoid putting the question – who seems like the safer pair of hands?

It’s interesting to see how the battle of body language between these two opposing leaders reflects their narratives. Armenia stands on the emotive questions of cultural identity, a narrative of historical victimhood, and a nostalgia for long-lost Armenian regional supremacy. Azerbaijan stands on the less emotive, more cut-and-dried ground of recognised borders, Security Council resolutions and international law.

To watch the two national leaders is to witness the confrontation of an energetic crowd-raiser, and a patient legal force. Whether the pressure of conflict and of international scrutiny will change those images remains to be seen. Until then, keep watching the body language. It never lies.