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Congressional “Dating” and the Power of Symbolism

Congress decided to “mix it up” for the State of the Union address, to sit together instead of opposite sides of the aisle. It was even referred to as “dating,” and fraught with the same social complexity and awkwardness teenagers encounter. This seemed like an empty gesture, but I was quite surprised by the outcome.

All major presidential
speeches are laden with symbolism. This time, the symbolism was especially
potent, pervading not only the speech and the surrounding ceremonies, but
Congress and beyond.

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Much had been reported on
Members’ efforts to “mix it up,” to sit together instead of heading to their
usual perches on opposite sides of the aisle. In the days leading up to the
speech, it was even referred to as “dating,” and, interestingly, fraught with
some of the same social complexity and awkwardness teenagers encounter.

I was as doubtful as anyone
that this effort would be more than an empty gesture. So I was quite surprised
— stunned actually — by the outcome.

Instead of the constant
interruptions we’ve come to expect during the SOTU, like the loud cheering,
booing and frequent standing ovations, Members were quieter, more subdued.

While the former behaviors during
this particular speech make for good theatre, the latter encouraged a more
civil and respectful tone than I ever recall seeing

Just as at a sports event,
sitting among the fans of your team encourages a boastful and in-your-face
group dynamic. When, however, we are seated among fans of the opposing team, we
are more inhibited and not as free to root for our team so loudly and, perhaps,
obnoxiously. Close physical contact forces us to respond to subtle shifts in
body language, which are rich in meaning. Call it empathy, call it respect,
call it fear of being beat up… I call it a natural, human instinct to ensure a
communication goes smoothly.

Furthermore, the mere act of
sitting next to and getting to know someone with different views makes it all
the more difficult to demonize that person down the road – or the next day when
Members of Congress had to get back to work solving our very serious problems.

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The downside is the speech
was less entertaining. I actually thought it was boring. But what was sacrifced
in drama was gained in a more civil tone. I hope the new symbolism lasts.

Read more State of the Union coverage

Ruth Sherman Associates LLC / High-Stakes Presentation Skills Coaching, Consulting & Media Training for CEOs, Celebrities & Politicians / Greenwich, CT. Connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin.

About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World.

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