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Audience Perceptions of Background Nonverbal Behaviors Displayed by Candidates in Televised Political Debates
Unformatted Document Text:  Background Behaviors: 3 Fair Play or Cheap Shot?: Audience Perceptions of Background Nonverbal Behaviors Displayed by Candidates in Televised Political Debates Though communication requires conversationalists to know and follow rules in order to achieve their goals, the nature of rules varies from one communication context to another. Political debates, for instance, usually have rigid guidelines about who should be allowed to speak and when. Debaters are not supposed to verbally interrupt an opponent who holds the floor. Of course, there are more subtle ways to express disagreement; debaters might use nonverbal expressions during an opponent’s speech. In early, televised debates, such behaviors might have gone unnoticed. However, recent technology using split-screen formats (which show both debaters simultaneously) makes the enactment of such behaviors more noticeable and potentially more significant, especially since the use of such technology has become widespread. To be sure, in the two most recent presidential debates, split-screen technology was used by CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and others. Given that the emergence of such technology provides viewers greater access to the background expressions of debaters, an important question becomes, “how do viewers perceive such behaviors?” On one hand, background communication may be perceived as an intentional attempt to undermine the opposing candidate. On the other, such behavior may simply be perceived as an overt reaction to what is said in a debate. In either case, it is unclear how audiences perceive such behavior. This is unfortunate considering that the answer to this question has practical as well as theoretical significance. Indeed, politicians expend considerable resources attempting to cultivate favorable images. Moreover, researchers and theorists have long been interested in explaining the ways in which individuals balance communication goals like those facing debaters. For instance, Kellerman (1992) argued that in the process of communication, people are constrained by concerns for both efficiency (i.e., achieving their goal without wasting time and other resources) and appropriateness (accomplishing their goal in a socially acceptable and respectful way). Likewise, the question of whether or not to display background behavior during a debate hinges

Authors: Seiter, John.
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background image
Background Behaviors: 3
Fair Play or Cheap Shot?: Audience Perceptions of Background
Nonverbal Behaviors Displayed by Candidates in Televised Political Debates
Though communication requires conversationalists to know and follow rules in order to
achieve their goals, the nature of rules varies from one communication context to another.
Political debates, for instance, usually have rigid guidelines about who should be allowed to
speak and when. Debaters are not supposed to verbally interrupt an opponent who holds the
floor. Of course, there are more subtle ways to express disagreement; debaters might use
nonverbal expressions during an opponent’s speech.
In early, televised debates, such behaviors might have gone unnoticed. However, recent
technology using split-screen formats (which show both debaters simultaneously) makes the
enactment of such behaviors more noticeable and potentially more significant, especially since
the use of such technology has become widespread. To be sure, in the two most recent
presidential debates, split-screen technology was used by CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and others.
Given that the emergence of such technology provides viewers greater access to the
background expressions of debaters, an important question becomes, “how do viewers perceive
such behaviors?” On one hand, background communication may be perceived as an intentional
attempt to undermine the opposing candidate. On the other, such behavior may simply be
perceived as an overt reaction to what is said in a debate. In either case, it is unclear how
audiences perceive such behavior.
This is unfortunate considering that the answer to this question has practical as well as
theoretical significance. Indeed, politicians expend considerable resources attempting to cultivate
favorable images. Moreover, researchers and theorists have long been interested in explaining the
ways in which individuals balance communication goals like those facing debaters. For instance,
Kellerman (1992) argued that in the process of communication, people are constrained by
concerns for both efficiency (i.e., achieving their goal without wasting time and other resources)
and appropriateness (accomplishing their goal in a socially acceptable and respectful way).
Likewise, the question of whether or not to display background behavior during a debate hinges


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