Your Feelings About Donald Trump Have Less to Do with His Words than You Think

To some, Trump’s distinctive speaking style shows he’s authentic. To others, it shows he’s reckless.

Donald Trump’s gaffe of the day on Wednesday was his statement that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions in the event that abortion is made illegal. The immediate global uproar forced his campaign to issue a statement making clear that what Trump actually meant was the opposite of what he said; “the doctor… would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” the statement said. As with so many Trump remarks that have had to be hurriedly reversed, this one makes many non-supporters wonder how anyone could possibly support a candidate who apparently has no thought-through policy positions and instead makes them up as he speaks. Part of the explanation is in a new Scientific American article, with implications for anyone who hopes to influence others and rally followers.

The article, called “The Idiolect of Donald Trump,” is by linguist Jennifer Sclafani. No, she isn’t calling Trump an idiot; the term comes from the Greek root meaning separate or distinct. She asks, “How does half of the population come away from the same event thinking Donald Trump sounded like a bumbling idiot, while the other half praises his performance as authentic and indicative of a strong leader?”

Much of the answer, she says, is his idiolect, his distinctive way of speaking. For example, he’s a heavy user of so-called “discourse markers,” such as “so,” “you know,” and “anyway.” That style gives “the impression that he is having an intimate conversation with individual voters rather than giving a prepared speech to a mass audience.” To some listeners, that shows that he’s authentic and trustworthy, not reading a scriptwriter’s words. To others, that same style shows that he’s unreflective, unprepared, and reckless.

The larger point is that while many people objected to Trump’s words on Wednesday, people generally are forming their opinions of Trump – and of pretty much everyone else – based on factors in addition to the substance of what is said. Research after televised political debates, even immediately after, consistently finds that most viewers remember very little about which candidate said what. But viewers remember quite clearly which candidates they liked and which they didn’t like. It’s their body language, their tone of voice, their manner, their idiolect.If you’re in that majority of people who find Trump’s rise baffling, ask yourself what it is, really, that you dislike about him. Don’t flatter yourself that it’s purely his policy positions or lack of them. The truth is that there’s also something about him that you just don’t like. What is it? And then ask how that same something might strike someone else as a positive. Because it does, crazy as that may seem.

All of us need to confront the reality that in our communications, words are important but get us only so far. Harvard Business School researcher Francesca Gino reports that we take only about one tenth of a second “to form judgments of others on all sorts of dimensions, including likability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness.” What are you really communicating—quite apart from whatever you may say?

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