Patrycia Centeno


Patrycia CENTENO

Journalist Patrycia Centeno (La Coruña, 1983) has been a pioneer in analysing the role of non-verbal communication in politics. She has just published Sin decir ni mu

“The criminalisation of emotions is caused by this recent resurgence of populist movements”

This passion to unite politics and fashion isn’t a very common association, where does it come from?

I specialised in political journalism and I really liked it very much. But another of my passions was fashion, something that seems very superfluous here, but is very different in other countries, such as France and the US. But I wasn’t so interested in fashion as a trend. The link for me was that both fashion and politics are communication. I did a postgraduate degree in journalism and fashion communication and my final thesis was on this link. Then everyone told me I was crazy, what does one thing have to do with the other? When I called the parties, they didn’t even know what I was talking about. So what started as an anecdote has ended up as my profession, and I also think the media is giving the subject more and more relevance.

Why is fashion seen as frivolous here?

I think we’ve lost the great knowledge we had. During the 19th century, Catalonia was a great textile power, but over the years we’ve been losing or devaluing this appreciation of fashion.

If we look at the followers and relationships you’ve established via your Twitter account, it’s clear that a lot of people find your analysis very interesting.

It’s another way of analysing politics. Politicians have shown us that words have little value. We are seeing it these days with the subject of pacts, when we were told that there would never be a pact with the parties that imposed Article 155 and now various sides are doing it. It’s much more difficult to lie with nonverbal communication, because, in part, it’s an unconscious language. And since from childhood we’re taught how to manipulate and falsify the word, it’s more difficult with gestures, clothes and even smells. It’s a cultural issue.

We’re taught to speak in public in the classroom, but is enough attention paid to non-verbal communication?

With body language it’s strange, because while in other countries like the US, who invented marketing, from an early age they are taught to talk and behave in public, whereas here it’s not the case. But body language is innate and, in the end, we all judge. We take between 20 seconds and four minutes to judge a person we’ve just met and, often, we do it from afar, when we still can’t properly see their facial expressions. Furthermore, their clothing is already providing us with a lot of information about that person: what they do, what party they vote for or are a member of... All this information reaches us and we know how to interpret it. But it’s true that some techniques and some knowledge about non-verbal communication are needed for this not to be a misinterpretation. I don’t agree at all with the saying that appearances are deceptive. Appearances are never deceptive. We are the ones who let ourselves be deceived.

Your book is based on the idea that 93% of what we communicate is through non-verbal messages. Are we sufficiently aware of this?

I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be a problem if we were well enough prepared. In the book, I explain that when we’re babies, our parents communicate with us through non-verbal communication. As we grow older and the word gains importance in our lives, we lose this innate language. Some knowledge does remain, but sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly what it is. We watch TV and see a politician, we notice an incoherence between what they say and what they transmit through non-verbal communication and we can’t explain it. But we have detected something that we don’t like, that is incoherent.

Is your conclusion that image is more important than discourse, or that the two things need to complement one another?

They must complement one another. Body language must be accompanied by the word. There must be consistency. To be credible, what you’re saying must correspond with what you’re communicating with the rest of your body.

If you had to give me a quick class on the subject, what points should I take into account when analysing what words don’t tell us?

Rather than paying attention to some specific gesture, the most important thing in the field of leadership is to check whether the person is serene. In the end, everything is emotional in non-verbal communication. And here reason and the word are in opposition with non-verbal communication and feelings. Nowadays, when we’re trying to criminalise emotions, I would praise politicians and leaders who show emotion. Otherwise, we stop being human or animal and become monsters. The criminalisation of emotions is triggered by this resurgence of populist movements. If you look at the leaders of these parties, the gestures of fear, hatred and contempt or frustration are always repeated. If we observe images or gestures by Trump, Bolsonaro or Salvini, or even Nicolás Maduro, and compare them with those that Adolf Hitler practiced or attempted to demonstrate to his photographer, we will see that they are the same. All such authoritarian and negative gestures still have power in our society. But I think that this interpretation of power must be modified and changed towards positive gestures and emotions, such as a smile, a tear falling... Towards the feminisation of political communication. We need to change the parameters. Being vulnerable does not mean being weak.

If you had to relate this to a current politician, who would we be talking about?

David Fernández, from the CUP party. The reference points in the feminisation of political communication are, still today, men such as Barack Obama and here David Fernández. Women have had to put up with being labelled the weaker sex for centuries. We see this very clearly in the Catalan independence trial, when women don’t have the same licence as their peers, such as talking about personal issues, a smile... Because we ourselves even realise that it looks like a lack of professionalism.

But emotions can also deceive us. We can also make false gestures.

Yes, of course. We can make false gestures, but it’s hard to, because it’s an unconscious language. Here you need the tools of an expert who knows how to evaluate whether those tears or that smile are sincere. With smiles it’s very easy to detect.

Have politicians here worked on their non-verbal communication enough?

The job of adviser in this field doesn’t exist here, or in many other countries. In the US and even Latin America they have worked at it a lot, but here it’s still taboo. I always tell my colleagues who advise on political affairs that it’s accepted that a politician wears make-up, but not that I can advise them, for example, that their image does not go with the message they want to transmit.

If you had to advise a politician, what would be the first recommendation you would give them?

I normally ask three things: what do you want to communicate? What does your party want to communicate? And what would you never do? Then it’s very good to look in the mirror for a while and, if possible, watch a silent video of yourself speaking or at some event. When we do this exercise to interpret ourselves, but also another person without the voice, we get a lot more information, and, moreover, it’s usually much more sincere. Here we also see the topic of lies. Experts always say that, for a lie to have an effect and credibility, the most important thing is that there is someone willing to believe it. Now we’re living in times when we need to believe many things. The crisis we have experienced was not only economic, but also ideological, and we need to believe in something. We have two options: either populism comes and speaks to us of hatred and frustration, or we try to stimulate, to communicate hope. This second way is much harder and takes a lot longer, but is the path we should follow.

In your book, you argue that we’re in a time of change with regard to non-verbal communication in leadership. Where are we heading exactly?

I think we’re heading towards a feminisation of political communication. And I suppose that this resurgence of populism and such alpha tendencies have the aim of stopping this evolution. When there is an attack, for example, the first thing the president does is to appear in public and say that he will attack back. This is a very alpha response. Women usually try to resolve things more empathetically. The clearest example would be the reaction of the Prime Minister of New Zealand after the attacks in her country. I understand that in the face of this evolution there is a reaction from the right-wing parties, but this is also further proof of the change.

This change that’s taking place, what is it mainly down to?

It has a lot to do with the arrival of women in power. Only a decade ago we were speaking about these as being one-off examples but now, there are more and more. We have to think that during the 19th century, when we thought about the image of power, it was all about men. When women arrived, we saw an evolution. First, the references were only men. A very paradigmatic case is that of Margaret Thatcher. The first thing the advisers told her was: “If you want to be a prime minister, start to take off the necklaces and hats and go to a speech therapist to change your voice.” She only agreed to change her voice, but despite that the final image of her was a very tough one. Therefore, this transmission of power was always very masculine. The arrival of women in power raises the problem of whether to imitate men or create a new pattern. And this has been very difficult. If we analyse the evolution of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, we see a very obvious change. As women have come to power, all this emotional way of dressing and gesturing has begun.

Another surprising aspect is people who suddenly change their way of dressing or their personal image when they go into politics.

The most extreme case is Ada Colau. In the last four years, she has made many aesthetic changes. And after saying that she was not interested in image! These changes must be done beforehand. When an adult does it, and in the case of politicians, we associate it with immaturity. Moreover, her electorate sees it as false. Who should we believe, the Ada Colau before or now? It’s the same with Pablo Iglesias. All of this can be an indication that the person’s message is not entirely sincere. That’s why I’m so interested in fashion, because it tells us a lot of things. There’s a phrase by Pepe Mújica that I love: “Power doesn’t change people, it only reveals what they really were.”

You have been following the trial of the Catalan political prisoners very closely. What impression have they made on you?

The statement made by Jordi Cuixart was very powerful, but the most significant moment was when he stood up watching the video and annoyed the whole court. At that moment, he took the reins of the trial and showed that it was all a big farce. I found that very interesting.

And the judges, what impression have they made?

What’s surprised me most was Marchena’s behaviour towards women. If what he did to the state prosecutor is not harassment, I don’t know what is. The women in the defence team knew how to react serenely and with a smile.



A different view

She was born in La Coruña, but has lived in Catalonia all her life. She has worked as a fashion journalist and also as an image and corporate image advisor. She appears on various radio and television programmes. Apart from Sin decir ni mu, she previously published Política y moda, la imagen del poder (2012) and Espejo de Marx. ¿La izquierda no puede vestir bien? (2013). She acknowledges that she has always been “very curious” and, moreover, perceives “reality in a very visual way.” Her comments on how politicians dress and their gestures have become a true phenomenon on social media. She has over 35,000 followers on Twitter and hew tweets, witty and full of irony, tend to get a lot of attention.

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