Joe Biden: Up Close and Too Personal?

Emma Buckby

23 Feb 2015

Communicating across cultures is rarely straightforward.  Nonverbal communication such as body language is often one of the most difficult areas of any culture to navigate. In addition to cultural influences, what might have been deemed “acceptable” behaviour in previous generations may be poorly viewed today.

Up Close and Too Personal

In a recent photo collection published in The Telegraph, Joe Biden, the American Vice President, has been labelled the ‘space invader’.  In each of these photos, most readers would be very likely to describe the Vice President as too close for comfort to the person he is near.  And in this article, the photos are all close encounters with women.

Why would most readers think these photos show inappropriate behaviour?  Readers also form their opinions through their own cultural lens and what they pick up through their senses.  In the case of many of the photographs of Mr Biden, the women’s facial expressions are less than enamoured with Mr Biden’s close proximity, most often through an excruciatingly forced smile.  In other photos, other people near the women clearly react in a negative way, leaving the reader in little doubt about their opinion of Mr Biden’s behaviour.  In addition, some of the women who have been ‘Bidened’ show their discomfort through their body language, such as a defensive placement of their hand or tilting their head away.

What might be motivating Mr Biden to behave in such a way? 

Perhaps he thinks his body language is informal and thus less intimidating; perhaps he actually thinks this behaviour puts them at ease.  Perhaps he thinks it makes what he is saying more important.   Perhaps he thinks it’s a great photo opportunity.  Perhaps he simply thinks he is irresistible to these women, even at official functions.

Why might the women consider his behaviour less than welcoming? 

Many of the photos are taken at official functions or similar events, where Mr Biden’s status is key.  As the women in many of these photos are also high status, including foreign heads of state, his space invader message may an attempt to subliminally claim an even higher status than these important women.  Most women would also find his gestures to be very familiar – indeed over familiar.  Behaviour that at the very least would be considered inappropriate by most women, certainly in public, and even then only if they know the person well and welcome behaviour most people would suggest is somewhat intimate.

It would be interesting to think what these sophisticated, accomplished women – descriptions that easily fit most of the women in the photos – really think of Mr Biden’s space invasion.  The photos appear to show them as graceful rather than confrontational or angry.

Do the younger women freeze in surprise?  Have the very prominent women put up with it as another burden of their very public lives?  Do the older women think ‘here we go again’, thinking back to their youth when this sort of behaviour was not always regarded as so cringe-worthy as it is now?

Acceptable Behaviour or Not?

Mr Biden and the American public may not have heard of Operation Yewtree, but they might look at these photos in another light if they have.  But Americans are generally very familiar with the popular television series Mad Men, which almost idolises some of the ‘space invader’ behaviour Mr Biden seems to enjoy.  Confusing messages, indeed.



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