Cultural Studies: Hillary Clinton’s Hand-to-Heart Gesture: How Did It Start?

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Cultural Studies: Hillary Clinton’s Hand-to-Heart Gesture: How Did It Start?

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When Hillary Clinton told her audience at a rally in Las Vegas on Thursday “Here’s what I believe,” she punctuated those words with not just a vocal flourish but a physical one. Up went her hand, placed over her heart.

It’s a gesture unfamiliar from her past campaigns, but it’s a favorite this time around. In Columbus, Ohio, and Omaha, Mrs. Clinton spoke of her late father, and up went her hand, placed over her heart.

At the Democratic National Convention, when she took the stage to wild applause, she cued the audience on how grateful, moved and humbled she felt by putting her hand to her heart, once, twice, then a third and fourth time.

It’s a subliminal message of sincerity that some language experts consider contrived.

Bill McGowan, a communications coach and chief executive of Clarity Media Group, calls the hand-on-heart motion “the gesture du jour.” He said he has noticed that other politicians have adopted the habit, and he doesn’t think it’s entirely artless.

“Voters are more and more wise to the fact that speeches are carefully constructed and vetted, yet at the same time there is so much demand for a higher level of authenticity,” Mr. McGowan said. “Candidates are looking for anything that makes them seem like they are speaking genuinely from the heart, and not from a thoroughly vetted key message document.”

Chelsea Clinton used the gesture when she introduced her mother at the convention. Michelle Obama put her hand on her heart multiple times when she mentioned her daughters. Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim United States soldier killed in combat, did the same when the crowd applauded his son’s sacrifice.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada may have inspired the trend: He put his hand to his heart so humbly and so often before cheering audiences during his campaign last year, it became almost a trademark.

Or, as Tristin Hopper, a writer for the Canadian newspaper The National Post put it: “Trudeau, however, manages not only a hand on his heart but moist eyes and a glowing expression, all delivered as a kind of silent ‘For me? Oh my God, thank you.’”

“If you are cynical, which I am not, you could say Hillary Clinton is trying to show audiences that she is warm and fuzzy and approachable,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “But from my perspective, it’s great shorthand: It conveys emotion and gratitude and humbleness. It reminded me of baseball players who point a finger up to the sky after a home run to say that it was God, not them, who made it happen.”

Ms. Greenberg noted that the hand-to-heart motion was especially effective for female politicians. “Men are rewarded for showing their feelings, but women are still judged differently,” she said. “This is a way of showing emotion without crying.”

There is no way to pinpoint how or when the motion gained currency. When Angelina Jolie received a humanitarian award at the Sarajevo Film Festival in 2011, she put her hand on her heart several times to show how moved she was by the honor. But it’s rare at Hollywood awards ceremonies, possibly because movie stars holding statuettes don’t want to risk whacking themselves in the thorax.

The gesture is more common as a greeting or a sign of respect in parts of Asia and the Middle East, so it’s possible Mrs. Clinton picked it up while traveling as secretary of state. She did put her hand on her heart during a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2010 — but in that case, King Abdullah had inquired about former President Clinton’s health, and she was explaining that her husband had two stents put in one of his coronary arteries.

It could just be that the gesture is a nonverbal version of phrases that suddenly turn ubiquitous: “iconic,” instead of “special,” “granular” instead of “detailed,” “I’m good” instead of “no thank you.”

At the moment, the use of “unpack” in lieu of “explain” is popular: When Chris Wallace in a Fox News interview last Sunday suggested to Mrs. Clinton that her economic plan would create more costly government programs, she replied, “Well, but let’s unpack that.”

Sometimes, these expressions are infectious, but Mr. McGowan said he considered it unlikely that Mrs. Clinton adopted the habit unconsciously. (The Clinton campaign did not return calls asking for comment.) “There is probably no deeper analysis of the ways to communicate than in politics,” Mr. McGowan said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the campaign tested it on focus groups.”

Sociologists have tested it. Michal Parzuchowski, an assistant professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Sopot, Poland, conducted empirical studies of the hand-to-heart gesture and concluded that not only does it make the user appear more truthful, it can also persuade that person to be more trustworthy.

In his paper, “From the Heart: Hand Over Heart as an Embodiment of Honesty,” Mr. Parzuchowski reported that the gesture “leads to increased perceptions of honesty in others and decreases one’s own cheating (Study 4) and the telling of white lies (Study 3), compared to persons performing neutral gestures.”

There is another school of thought on the subject, most easily described as Science, Schmience.

On his website, Nicolas Fradet, a consultant and body-language specialist, puts hand-on-heart at No. 6 on his list of 13 revealing gestures.

This conveys a person’s desire to be believed or accepted,” he wrote. “Though intended to communicate sincerity, it doesn’t necessarily mean honesty. It just means, ‘I want you to believe me (whether or not what I say is true).’”

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