Judi James gives her thoughts on Dominic Cummings body language during the Commons Committee Hearing.
The utter blandness of his physical appearance provides a smart smokescreen for Dominic Cummings to ply his trade in public. Unlike Boris with his laundry-basket dress and that un-weeded tangle of blonde hair that threatens to spontaneously combust from static at any minute, Cummings’s plain white shirt and shaved head bore the eye quickly, making it easy to believe that a man this lacking in visual charisma could be anything more than straight down the line.
But Cummings’s body language tells another, richer story. It would be impossible to imagine this man not planning his appearance in fine detail and that means he must have known the vast scale of the often-conflicting versions of himself he was hoping to present to the committee and the public.
I can only guess that one of those now-infamous white boards must have been covered with stream-of-consciousness scribbles during the planning process. There was close-to-tears Empathetic and Apologetic Cummings; Forensic Cummings with every accusation backed by detail and fact; Forgetful Cummings who wasn’t sure whether he attended Cobra meetings or not; Powerful Cummings who spoke about smashing large buttons to get things stopped; No-power Cummings who had very limited authority; Clever Cummings who could spot every mistake the experts were making; Stupid Cummings who claimed ‘I’m not a smart man’; Vengeful, angry, sweary Cummings out for Hancock’s blood like a bulimic vampire, and Vulnerable Cummings who claimed to have nipped off in the direction of Barnard Castle for his own safety.
With a Cummings cast-list that would dwarf even Alec Guinness’s multi-character role in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Boris’s ex-advisor more than stepped up to the plate. Using a range of body language rituals, he switched from one behavioral state to another rapidly and almost seamlessly, boring the eye and the ear all the while with his dull-ish monotone to disengage the part of the listener’s brain that should be going ‘Hey, hang on a minute, didn’t you just say you couldn’t remember/were too stupid/powerless?’
The first big switch came near the start when Cummings moved from tearful, empathetic apologist to alpha male. He hung his head and spoke with a huge swallow and a sob in his voice as he spoke about how ‘sorry I am for the families’ and for ‘mistakes that were made’. His lower jaw dropped in an expression of grief before a dramatic pause ended that section and he moved onto the next.
Suddenly his body inflated and his chest puffed. He sat back into his chair and the upper body splaying began, signaling superior power and confidence bordering on arrogance. The splaying was a trait that continued through the committee hearing and at times he even had one arm stretched out to prop onto the empty chair next to him in the style of Simon Cowell (Whose chest hair reveal he was also channeling).
Many of Cummings’s gestures were truncated or short-fall in terms of acting out emotion. His hand-chop that should signal a desire to cut through a problem lacked congruence as the elbow was rested on the arm of the chair. His hand clasp became a baton gesture of emphasis but some of these ‘honesty rituals were undermined by his leakage gestures that suggested anxiety rather than defined thought.
Cummings’s eye movement probably provided the most telling body language signals. When he was asked questions there was a lot of eye-dart to suggest someone accessing many different parts of the brain to produce an answer. His eyelids fluttered and his blinking often became staccato to suggest a burst of adrenalin that can cause autonomic signals associated with tension.
Cummings’s moments of what looked like genuine confidence rather than signature bravado came when he kept diving for his notes. This was when all the performance signals dropped away to show a man who saw forensic note-taking and record-keeping as his winning super-power. Hunt stood up in the Commons today to suggest that claims were made but the documentary backing hadn’t been seen yet. Cummings’s body language though suggested he is in possession of the document version of ‘War and Peace’.
And it was obvious from a very early point in his statements that Matt Hancock was in his sights. Cummings referred to him as ‘Hancock’ while everyone else got a first name-check or a respectful ‘PM’. When he got onto the subject of Hancock his upper lip tightened and there were two facial micro-gestures to suggest contempt or disgust, like a tiny pulling of the side of the lip into a sneer.
Overall Cummings looked powdered-faced calm and cool although it was possible to pick out moments of uncertainty or what looked like a desire to hide or mask emotions via the work down by his left hand as it touched his face. Facial touch is usually an auto-contact sign of tension and anxiety but it can also be used to create a barrier or mask to hide behind and reveal your true feelings as you speak. Cummings’s lip-touch became a lip-rub self-comfort ritual but then he also began to place his fingers or his hand on his forehead. This gesture became more pronounced and looked more like a concealment gesture as the hand ended spread on his upper forehead so that his face was partly concealed.
So, which was the real Cummings? I’d probably bet on his very first pose, which seemed to come before the other versions kicked off. With his rolled sleeves suggesting a rather informal nonchalance, he slumped forward to lean towards the panel, placing both elbows on the table with the air of a cocky kid called to the head’s office. His direct eye-stare looked challenging and it was followed by an impatient-looking eye-dart around the panel. Cummings then poked his tongue into the inner left side of his mouth and ran it round the inner cheek in an exaggerated-looking ritual that is usually referred to as ‘tongue-in-cheek’.