Remember die Raute

Next week’s German federal elections will mark the end of the Angela Merkel era. Regarded by many as the most powerful woman in the world, the German chancellor guided her country through many crises and has dominated European politics for the last sixteen years.

But, Mutti has also become famous for her signature hand gesture, known as the Merkel Raute (a German word that translates as rhombus or diamond).

Photo by Armin Linnartz (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While communication specialists have explained the famous gesture as “a sign of stability and reliability”, “an intermediate sensation between proximity and distance”, or even as “a protective roof for defusing and avoiding emotional signals”, the German leader herself says the position of her hands simply shows “a certain love of symmetry”.

Nonverbal communication is more important than most people think. Only a small portion of our (public speaking) message is conveyed through words. It is complemented by vocal elements like volume and pitch. All the rest is communicated through your facial expressions, eye movements, hand gestures, body posture, etc. Even through your makeup or the clothes you wear.

By the way, Angela Merkel isn’t the only politician in history that became (in)famous through an iconic attribute or gesture. Think, for example, of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, Winston Churchill’s cigar, Mobutu Sese Seko’s leopard skin hat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s hand-in-coat, or even Donald Trump’s L-shaped finger pinch.

Other articles I’ve written about communication skills of political leaders and their spokespeople:

Everyone’s a winner, baby

The photo below, taken at last week’s G7 summit in Charlevoix (Canada) and published on Instagram by German chancellor Angela Merkel, will probably go into history as one of the most viral pictures of 2018, as well as a good candidate for this year’s World Press Photo awards.

The picture (either in its original or in one of the many photoshopped versions that are circulating on the web) got annotations ranging from “renaissance art” to “a scene from the Apprentice.” I’m sure it will be used as a scholarly example for discussing facial expression and body language. Or for illustrating the problematic trade relationship between the EU and the US. Or for promoting the German chancellor’s prominent role at the G7 meeting.

But… as I wrote in an earlier post on this blog, “The right of being wrong,” there is no such thing as a single truth. All depends on the observer’s or the reporter’s perspective. Look at the other pictures, taken at the same moment, and tweeted by the French, the Italian, and the American players respectively…

It suddenly becomes less obvious telling which of the world leaders – Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Giuseppe Conte, or maybe even Donald Trump – really was the boss in Charlevoix.

Everyone’s a winner, baby. At least, that’s what their PR people will try to tell us…