Hillary Clinton’s debate performance was a master class in how to use a well-timed smile to say a thousand words

Say cheese.
Say cheese.
Image: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had some great zingers during her first showdown against her Republican counterpart Donald Trump: “I hope the fact checkers are turning up the volume and looking hard,” “Join the debate by saying more crazy things!” and, after Trump defended his racist campaign questioning president Barack Obama’s citizenship, ”Just listen to what you heard.”

Supplementing that arsenal of one-liners was a non-verbal tool that proved incredibly effective against Trump’s constant interruptions and criticism: her smile.

Ranging from a tight upturn of her lips to a wide and open-mouthed grin, Clinton’s smile communicated disdain and amusement, as well as a refusal to take some of Trump’s more absurd claims seriously and genuinely engage with them. You could see it when Trump falsely denied supporting the Iraq War, when he bizarrely claimed Clinton had been fighting ISIS “her entire adult life,” and when he bragged about having a better temperament.

She beamed when Trump accused her of lacking the stamina necessary for the Oval Office. ”Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” she responded.

The way a person smiles is said to reveal much about what they’re feeling, and voters notice when a smile is forced or genuine. Clinton has struggled with a charisma deficit and in the past has been told by pundits (many male) to smile more—to stop lecturing, to modulate her voice, to sound less angry, to be more warm and likable.

Tonight, she turned that advice around and used it to control how she was viewed reacting to Trump. She gave the impression of someone at ease, silently communicating to her supporters, while she verbally trounced her opponent. It was a sharp contrast to Trump’s aggressive, flustered, demeanor.

Women don’t have access to the same arsenal of debate tools as men: talking loudly, finger-pointing, and interrupting. It wasn’t an option for her to be so overtly aggressive. Instead she aggressively deployed her intellect—and her smile—as weapons instead.