President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin's greeting at the G-20 summit didn't mask the strain between the two leaders. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.
President Barack Obama was intent on getting the upper hand as he greeted Russia's Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit on Thursday, according to body language experts who watched the frosty exchange.
From a jacket-buttoning pause to a hard-pumping handshake, Obama displayed tell-tale signs of dominance after he alit from a limo in front of St. Petersburg's Konstantin Palace, where Putin waited to meet him, communication experts said.
There was no outright hostility, but the chill between the two world leaders — at loggerheads over NSA leaker Edward Snowden and a strike against Syria — was evident in clenched-jaw smiles and lack of eye-contact and touching, the experts said.
"There's no real warmth," said Erik Bucy, a professor at Texas Tech University who researches non-verbal communication.
"It looks like Putin's basically a hotel greeter at a five-star establishment and Obama is coming out of the limo as the important invited guest he's not particularly thrilled to see."
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during arrivals for the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
Patti Wood, author of "Success Signals: Body Language in Business," made a similar analogy.
"It was very odd. Obama is treating him like he was greeting a doorman," she said.
She noted the significance Obama buttoning his suit jacket after exiting the limo.
"That’s another way men show power," she said. "It says, 'I know the attention is on me' and it’s a little bit rude to do that. It's grabbing the power for yourself."
Tonya Reiman, who has written three books on body language, said Obama extended his hand at least two seconds before Putin did.
"This is a show of power," she said. "In addition, he leans in toward Putin with his upper body, placing himself slightly into Putin's personal zone. Notice Putin pulls back ever so slightly, which indicates that Obama has the upper hand."
During the handshake, they pumped up and down 18 times, said Joseph Tecce, a psychology professor and body-language scholar at Boston College.
"The handshake is very tense. The 18 may have been an attempt for either one to show dominance, to say, 'Don't fuss with me," he said. "Or they are saying, 'Look, we are shaking hands, we're good — an attempt to establish what is not real."
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during arrivals for the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
Wood said Obama grasped Putin's hand from underneath so he could bring it up to him.
"That says, 'I’m in charge here. I’m going to run the show," she said.
Neither man took the opportunity to show affection beyond the shake.
"What they do when there is genuine affinity, they touch each other on the arm as if to say, 'You're my friend,'" Bucy said. "And you don’t see that here."
Both smiled for the camera but Bucy said the muscles along their jaws and unrelaxed eyes were signs the grins were "false."
Instead, there was lots of what Tecce called "gaze-aversion."
"They're not communicating here," he said. "They’re just going through the formalities."
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, walks away after shaking hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, during arrivals for the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
He said that Putin nodded 10 times during the encounter, tilting his head down even though it would have made more sense to look up at the taller Obama.
"Putin is intimidated by Obama, Obama is not intimidated by Putin," Tecce said.
Bucy, however, said he thinks Putin was sending a dismissive message.
"At one point, Putin raises his hand reflexively and pulls it back and points him toward the door. He's sending a message of, 'We're not friends right now.' Obama was ever so slightly holding out for a little more contact with him."
When the encounter was over, Putin remained standing outside the palace as Obama walked inside.
Reiman noticed that before Obama strode off, he raised up his arm, which she labeled a sign of dominance. "Putin looks down — another sign of submissive behavior," she said.
But if some saw the separation as Obama leaving Putin in the dust, Bucy had another take.
"Putin is saying, 'You're in Russia now and all things go through me,'" he said.
The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne and The Atlantic's Phillip Bump talk about the exchange between the two presidents.