Why you should care
Because you can speak very softly and still carry a big stick in U.S. politics.
Political Animals: Venturing into the wild to examine the peculiar behavior of an all-American beast.
In America, we’ve grown accustomed to our political firebrands being loud, vociferous and unyielding. Many U.S. voters have a certain affinity for leaders with a pound-the-table, Stone Age confidence, from Huey Long to Donald Trump.
Enter Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon whose soft voice, slow delivery and unflappable calm persist even while the candidate is comparing abortion to slavery, or conditions in the U.S. to those in Nazi Germany. Some call Carson’s mellow demeanor “sleepy”; others liken it to a “long nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon.” Saturday Night Live performer Jay Pharoah’s impression of Carson borders on the catatonic.
But voters love it, citing it as one of the main reasons they back Carson. And even if Carson’s poll numbers have fallen from his flirtation with front-runner status in November, his net favorability rating — 40 percentage points according to a recent poll — still ranks highly (second only to Ted Cruz in the GOP field). Carson appears to represent a political outsider, both in terms of his profession and in his relaxed bedside manner — a manner that some psychologists say can positively influence our impressions of the candidate and his potential as a leader.
For one thing, a calm demeanor often signals confidence and a reassuring steadiness to others. And voters, says Justin Frank, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and the author of Obama on the Couch, are pretty good at discerning calm confidence from its “low energy” brethren. “Ben Carson exudes a kind of quiet confidence,” says Frank, “that is very different from indifference or pretending to be calm.”
And more than that:
According to recent psychology studies, appearing calm and confident is often a key factor in shaping others’ impressions of our intelligence level.
“Calm speech patterns lead to the impression that Carson is intelligent or capable — he’s not prone to fly off the handle,” says Nora Murphy, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University, “which is what some people want in a political leader.”
And many Americans want a commander-in-chief who will remain cool under fire. “With decades of experience performing medical procedures, where one small mistake makes the difference between life or death,” says Carson campaign spokesman Jason Osborne, “it is abundantly clear that Dr. Carson has the right temperament to lead our country forward.”
But of course ascertaining intelligence is more complicated, and relies on a constellation of nonverbal cues, says Murphy. Context is also important: The same smooth, gentlemanly manner that plays well on the campaign trail in Iowa may be a liability when verbally sparring on a debate stage. And part of what Carson’s preternatural calmness conveys is certainty, says Frank, which may or may not appeal, depending on the voter’s own political bent. For Republicans, certainty is a sign of confidence, Frank says, but for Democrats, thoughtfulness is an indicator of confidence.
Then there’s the small matter of what is actually said with such calm certainty. And as Carson’s recent struggles (and his claims regarding West Point scholarships and pyramids used for grain storage) may attest, unless you possess a Trump-like defiance of political gravity, that does still matter to voters — regardless of how it’s delivered.