A Smile, A Smirk And A Grin In The Vice Presidential Debate

By Norman Berdichevsky

A great deal of debate followed the Vice Presidential debate regarding the laughter and body language of Joe Biden.

On his post-debate talk show,  T.V. Journalist Sean Hannity continually referred to Biden’s laughter and smiles as unintentional and uncontrollable much like that  of someone mentally ill who cannot distinguish between what is  serious and what is ridiculous.

Others on the panels of Fox News such as Chris Wallace, Charles Krauthammer and Brit Hume all saw Biden’s behavior as distinctly intentional with the calculated effort to demean and ridicule his opponent, Congressman Paul Ryan.

I would support the latter view very strongly as would most Americans, on the basis of our own life experience, even without recourse to the dictionary. We all know that natural laughter is provoked by a humorous situation, one that is absurd or incongruent that defies our ordinary expectations. From his facial grimaces, smiles, smirks, grins and body language, Vice President Biden made a clearly calculated effort to display maximum contempt, disrespect, profound dismay and shocking incredulity over what one could only conclude had to be the stupidity or insensitivity or gross arrogance of his opponent’s  behavior and views.

The first case situation of a humorous remark, situation or occurrence  leading to audible laughter produces a real or true smile – one without any ingenuity or guile.

A smirk on the other hand, is visibly a self-conscious act designed more to provoke consternation among third-party viewers than anything else. It immediately transmits a sense of condescension and contempt for the actions and views of the opponent. Shaking one’s head at the same time, chuckling, half-submerged mutterings of ‘Oh God’ and raised eyebrows with a look of incredulity visually intensifies the message. It most often does not produce real laughter which is difficult to imitate on command.

A grin may be either the continuation of a smile or a smirk in which the front teeth are clearly in evidence. Biden’s very well-known self-grooming efforts in both hair restoration and teeth implants whitened to the maximum were on full display during the 90 minutes of the debate with Ryan leaving no doubt that he was making up for President Obama’s performance in the presidential debate demonstrating his total lack of honest communication with either his opponent, the moderator and the audience.

One does not have to go to debate school to know what the face and body language reveal in a tense situation. It is now a part of presidential debate history and the television medium that Richard Nixon’s failure to get a very close shave, profuse sweating, and the shadows produced by the camera angles gave his demeanor a very sinister connotation and virtually ensured the victory of President John F. Kennedy in 1960.

When one examines the topics that Congressman Ryan was speaking about at the time of Biden’s smirks and phony laughter, they dealt with the massive problems of our times – unemployment, health care, the debt and budget deficit, the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb, religious freedom and the threat of government coercion, none of which would normally be the subject of mirth or the opening for a clever joke.

All our presidential candidates had been previously absolved from appearing before a large crowd in such a way that everyone and not just those in the front seat could get a close-up shot of the participants. It is understandable that the Republican National Committee is making maximum use of these mannerisms in a short video advertisement reminding many young people of humiliating confrontations with their parents.

Imagine why – if you needed more proof – it became impossible to “work across the aisle” with a President and a Vice-President who debate with their opponents in these manners. Who would you rather deal with to reach an honorable compromise? One side sends out the message – your views are the subject of ridicule.

A handshake with which every debate begins can only have significance that you honor and trust your opponent will act fairly, only if it is followed up by sober, respectful debate with the appropriate face and body language. For the first two debates, viewers had the clearest indication of which side in the executive branch would be worthy of working with an opposition in Congress to get things done.


Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Orlando, Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of The Danish-German Border Dispute (Academica Press, 2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004), Spanish Vignettes; An Offbeat Look into Spain’s Culture, Society & History (Santana Books, Malaga, Spain. 2004), An Introduction to Danish Culture (MacFarland, 2011) and The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011). He is the author of more than 200 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals such as World Affairs, Journal of Cultural Geography, Ecumene, Ariel, Ethnicity, The World & I, Contemporary Review, German Life, Israel Affairs, and Midstream. He is also a professional translator from Hebrew and Danish to English and his website is here.




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