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article imageBody language: Brazil's Bolsonaro angry and introverted

By Louis GENOT (AFP)     May 16, 2019 in World

Behind the virulent speech and aggressive body language of Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is an uncharismatic introvert deeply uncomfortable in public, experts say.

Far from being a great orator like left-wing former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former army captain speaks with a lisp in a style that is often tense and combative.

Like his US counterpart Donald Trump, whom he openly admires, Bolsonaro is a big fan of social media networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which allow him to express himself in a forceful manner without having to worry about his awkward gestures.

"He is anything but an extroverted person. He is really not charismatic," says David Leucas, a psychologist and non-verbal language specialist at Santa Ursula University in Rio de Janeiro.

"The shape of his face evokes an angry person and his body language is often aggressive.

"Normally he gesticulates a lot, energetically, with an open hand that starts at the chest and moves forward, typical of a person trying to establish a relationship of domination."

But Bolsonaro's behavior changes according to the context, audience and subject: when he is uncomfortable his speech is less fluid and sounds like dictation.

Such was the case at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January -- his first overseas outing as president.

Bolsonaro used only six of the 45 minutes allocated to him for a speech many considered dull and superficial.

- 'Turtle effect' -

Bolsonaro salutes Rio de Janeiro's Governor Wilson Witzel (L) next to Brazilian Defense Ministe...
Bolsonaro salutes Rio de Janeiro's Governor Wilson Witzel (L) next to Brazilian Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva during a ceremony to commemorate the participation of Brazil in World War II in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 8 of this year
MAURO PIMENTEL, AFP

"When he's under pressure, you can see his body freeze, his shoulders come in -- it's called the turtle effect," says Leucas.

A close examination of video footage of Bolsonaro's Davos speech shows his eyes constantly searching for the teleprompter and his body swaying.

"He does not have a strong anchorage and he is constantly shifting his weight from one leg to the other, which is a sign of anxiety," says Leucas.

"If he is uncomfortable, either he is completely tense or he starts to shun people and adopts more aggressive language."

Where the 64-year-old does appear to feel comfortable is at military ceremonies, which he attends frequently.

"It is clear that he is much more relaxed in the presence of soldiers. His posture is more natural than when he is faced with journalists, for example," says Sergio Senna, professor of the Brazilian Institute of Body Language.

Despite his public-speaking shortcomings, Bolsonaro's tough talk on crime and corruption resonated with many voters in last year's elections.

Over the years the president has learned to somewhat "soften" his speech and better control his emotions, says Senna.

But old habits are hard to break.

As a member of Congress for nearly three decades, Bolsonaro was known for his often racist, misogynistic and homophobic remarks and a penchant for hurling insults.

"Throughout his political career, many people have taken advantage of this character trait -- he is very irritable and when he starts to get upset he goes over the edge," says Senna.

- Hate speech -

Bolsonaro makes heavy use of military or nationalist terms and appears to go to great lengths to avoid political correctness.

"His way of avoiding political correctness is to speak harshly and aggressively," says Claudiana Nogueira de Alencar, professor of linguistics at Ceara State University.

Religious references also pepper the president's discourse, which is not surprising given the strong political support he receives from evangelicals.

Bolsonaro's own faith appears to have strengthened after he survived a knife attack during last year's campaign.

He often uses a verse from the Book of John in the Bible -- "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." He said it during his victory speech in October when he also claimed to have felt "the presence of God and the strength of the Brazilian people."

"He presents himself as an apostle of sincerity in the face of the hypocrisy of political correctness," says Nogueira.

"But he actually delivers his own version of the truth to propagate his hate speech."

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