Ardern, Biden meeting: Expert analyses their body language during meeting at the White House

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made her first visit to the White House on Tuesday (local time) for a highly anticipated and historic meeting with US President Joe Biden.

The pair discussed a number of topics, including the Pacific, China, gun control, online extremism and trade, with Ardern inviting both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to Aotearoa.

The meeting coincides with rising tensions in the Pacific regarding China's efforts to extend its influence in the region. The Chinese Foreign Minister has been visiting a number of Pacific nations to discuss economic and security agreements.

While the Prime Minister described her meeting with the President as "warm" and "friendly" and Biden referred to Ardern as a "good friend", it's widely known that at least 70 percent of all communication is nonverbal. Body language is a type of communication in which physical behaviours, as opposed to words, are used to express or convey information. Such behaviour includes facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space. Some experts even agree that as much as 93 percent of communication isn't actually coming from your lips. 

To dissect what the two leaders were really saying, behavioural specialist and body language expert Suzanne Masefield analysed the footage of Ardern and Biden's encounter and gave Newshub her thoughts. 

At the beginning of their long-awaited meeting, Masefield noted that Ardern had her foot directed towards Biden, a position that indicated she was giving the President her full attention. Her hands were also crossed in her lap, which suggested she was keeping a tight rein on her emotions.

"Ardern has her foot pointed towards Biden, so totally focused on him. She has her hands in her lap, right over left, so keeping a check on her emotions," Masefield told Newshub.

"Her hand movements appear more professional."

However, Biden had his leg pointed outwards and not directed towards Ardern, suggesting he wasn't entirely focused on the Prime Minister at that moment. He may have been concentrating more heavily on choosing his words correctly, rather than his guest, Masefield added.

"His focus is on what he's saying, not on Ardern. He blocks his right eye, so is trying to think of what to say and looks down a lot at his notes. This is why some people would [infer] that he doesn't want to be there. I think he does, but is focused on what he's going to say as it's more important to him at that time - rather than her." 

It appeared Biden started to relax further into their discussion, at which point he began using hand gestures that are demonstrative of leadership and command attention. However, Masefield said he still appeared relatively closed off from his counterpart, making fleeting eye contact and appearing more focused on his notes.

"He uses hand gestures like 'the basketball' to encompass everyone, and 'the steeple' to show confidence as a leader," Masefield observed. 

"He also is quite closed, [even] as he warms up. He looks at his notes, head down, and looks at Ardern fleetingly."

Despite appearing slightly closed-off and detached, Masefield noted that Biden's body language did not indicate he was uninterested in Ardern or was wishing he was somewhere else. Instead, she believed his focus was firmly on appearing in a positive light and ensuring the meeting went smoothly.

Discussing the Pacific, Masefield noted that Ardern touched her heart and created an "over-exaggerated" smile as she reflected on her and Biden's shared history. Both had relatives who served in the Pacific: Biden's uncle and Ardern's grandfather. 

"Ardern only uses her right hand to be more direct and keep her emotions in check, as she usually does lots of hand gestures with both hands," Masefield observed.

"She moves her eyes from remembering to creating and has micro-expressions of fear and sadness when she talks about the domestic challenges. She touches her stomach and heart to show sincerity."

Masefield believed Biden's interest was most piqued by the work New Zealand is doing with technology companies, judging by his shifted position. He turned his body to face Ardern and pointed his leg towards her, moves that suggested he was "focused on her fully" and "very interested" in the topic at hand. 

"They don't look each other in the eyes much, but that could be the environment too," Masefield noted.

When Ardern acknowledged Biden's "significant leadership" regarding the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Masefield acknowledged her body language appeared congruent with her words, indicating her remark was sincere. 

Biden later reiterated his commitment to "working together" with New Zealand, saying: "We've got a lot to do.  And I want to emphasise the last point you made: 'working together'. We are not coming to dictate or lay down the law."

But Masefield said his words weren't entirely congruent with his body language.

"Biden uses his right hand when he talks about 'working together' and 'not dictating or laying down the law' - masculine energy and finger-pointing, so he would like to take charge," she said. 

At the end of their discussion, the two leaders mirrored one another with their hands in their laps and their feet directed towards the other, suggesting rapport.

"Ardern pulls down her skirt as a finish and looks pleased with herself. I think Biden is focused on his image, not on Jacinda at the start. He warms up a bit and personalises things, then they build rapport."

Overall, it appears both parties were pleased with the proceedings, with Ardern telling media outside the White House that she was "heartened" by the conversation. 

Newshub political reporter Amelia Wade acknowledged that Ardern will be "well-chuffed" with the day's progress and the "number of commitments" she secured from Biden.

The Prime Minister is currently enroute back to New Zealand.