Louis Theroux shouldn’t make sense. On one hand, he’s a self-described “socially awkward nerd” with a Twitter account documenting his most gawky moments. Yet on the other, this poster boy for geeks is able to unravel the most enigmatic groups on the planet through conversation alone. Whether delving into the lives of neo-nazis or heroin junkies, he surfaces with a vibrant picture of their motivations and complexities. It is, frankly, socially genius.
In order to get to the heart of his interviewees, Theroux has to navigate through the many power plays, non-verbal cues, psychological sub-texts and public personas that exist in all human interaction. And he does this at the same time as making his subjects forget what his aim is and while making the TV audience root for him.
How does he do it? Specifically, is there something special Theroux does – verbally and not so – that propels his subjects to reveal so much about themselves?
We spoke to linguistic and body language experts to find out just how Theroux is a master of this conversational game theory. Here’s how to communicate a bit more like Louis…
Bring your best poker face
If by chance you come across Louis Theroux and if it just so happens he fancies a game of Texas Holdem, here’s our advice: don’t do it. Even if you’ve read up how to assess an opponent’s tells, you probably won’t be able to read his. It’s highly unlikely you’ll spot any.
“The really interesting thing about Louis is that his face doesn’t move that much. Even when he’s talking, there’s very little emotion on display,” says Geoff Beattie, a Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University specialising in cognition communication.
And it’s not just that it’s rare to spot Theroux smiling or blushing. It’s that he doesn’t emit, what Beattie calls, ‘non-verbal leakage’. “This refers to micro-expressions: flickers of emotion that last a fraction of a second that may contradict what a person is saying – touching your mouth after you’ve said something you don’t like, for instance. They’re generally released unconsciously and processed unconsciously by the other person.
“The problem with other interviewers is that their face will change and influence what their subject is saying when they’re talking about something revealing. But it doesn’t happen with Theroux – there’s very little leakage and he’s mostly blank. He’s not giving away any look of disapproval, even if he doesn’t agree with what’s being said. He’s very controlled and lets his subjects talk without judgement. It’s amazing.”
However, you might have noticed one area that Louis does move while talking: the eyebrows. They’re almost constantly raised or raising. Try spotting it for yourself: count how many times his brows are riding high in the clip below of his interview with Lauren Drain, one of the former members of The Westboro Baptist Church. Or, if you prefer, let us count for you: out of the 15 occasions the camera turns to Louis’s face, his eyebrows are raised 10 times – that’s a massive 67% of the time.
It’s not something that’s easily controlled (try reading the rest of this article while constantly adjusting your eyebrow position). But it’s a facial tick with a powerful impact on Theroux’s interviewees. “Those high eyebrows, the look of surprise, is an evolutionary sign of submissiveness or weakness,” says Professor Beattie. “It sends out a signal to another person that they’re in control of the conversation. That, combined with the way Theroux looks a bit nerdish, makes him very unthreatening and therefore comforting to his subjects. It may sound harsh, but it’s a real social advantage.”
Stay in your personal bubble
Most people are probably aware that a huge proportion of communication is done non-verbally, with body language below the head making up a huge chunk of that. “Take your hands, for example,” says Professor Beattie. “It varies how you measure it, but about 40% of our communication is done with hands. But Louis hardly uses his. And if he does, they’re normally directed away from somebody’s personal space and in conjunction with that submissive eyebrow movement.”
The result? Again, it encourages his subjects to feel like the dominant conversationalist. They feel so unthreatened that they’ll express themselves not only verbally, but with their hands too. In essence, this puts Theroux in a brilliant position in the conversation: he can ask the questions while the subject feels like they’re in control.
For example, look at when Louis has an encounter with Lion breeder Piet Venter in the clip below (check in at the 1.05 mark). While challenging his interviewee whether it’s ethical to raise such species for sport, Theroux’s hands are kept low and by his side. And that gives room for Venter to reveal more about his relationship with the animals, supported by sweeping hand movements.
Yet, this is not the only way Theroux allows his interviewees to fill conversation. “We can all see that Theroux is often taller than his subjects, but he tends to slightly hunch a little. And he takes up very little space verbally, too – we’ve all seen his awkward silences,” explains Professor Karen Lury, head of Film & Television Studies at the University of Glasgow and an expert on screen performance. “They’re powerful social signals for the other person to compensate, verbally and otherwise. And it also makes people feel like they’re not really being observed.
“It’s very different to the body language you see from somebody like Reggie Yates, who is much more of an Alpha male and gives his interviewees much less space and allows them to talk a lot less.”
Let’s take two interviews to compare, both of which showing the presenters interacting with similar subjects: men with muscular implants. Firstly, watch how close Reggie is to his interviewee and how far his hands reach towards them…
And then take a similar interview from Theroux from his Under the Knife documentary, (which you can see on Netflix, or glimpse in gif form below). Theroux stands well away from his subject – another man with muscle implants – emitting a message that they’re the one in charge. His subject is encouraged to fill the space with expressive movements and to fill the conversation with spoken information.
Standing on the sidelines also has a bonus effect. “It’s fantastic in terms of eye contact,” says Professor Beattie. “Stand too close to somebody and they’ll feel uncomfortable staring at you for too long. But positioning yourself away from somebody allows both people in a conversation to maintain a gaze – a six feet distance is optimal.
“And when a subject does it with Louis, what are they going to see? Either those submissive eyebrows or an absence of any negative microexpressions. They’re going to feel much more dominant – and often more open – in that conversation.”
Ditch your pitch
So far, you may have gathered that Theroux allows his subjects to convey their emotions by withholding his own. In terms of social cues, he’s a black hole that his subjects can’t help gravitating towards. And this isn’t only restricted to his body language, but his speech too.
In particular, we’re talking about how Theroux approaches the simplest of conversational tools: the question. He largely avoids inflexions at the end of his sentences, neither steering his queries up or down in pitch. There’s virtually no difference between how Louis voices a question and a statement. “In fact, he’s not offering any verbal indication he’s finished talking, often just allowing sentences to trail off before his subjects answer,” says Professor Lury.
Exhibit A: this clip from previous series Dark States. Throughout Theroux’s voice is virtually flat, with little difference in tone used in the opening voiceover and the interview itself.
So, why doesn’t Theroux offer his interviewees many cues? Won’t offering directions to when they should talk help the interview along? Won’t it allow the conversation to flow more naturally? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t ensure the subject feels like they’re in control.
“Yes, he’s got a deep voice and speaks precisely, but Theroux’s questioning is typically quite submissive,” explains Professor Lury. “It’s not forceful. It’s not telling people when to answer. They’re allowed to come in whenever they want.”
Professor Beattie agrees: “By using these ambiguous intonations, his subjects are driven to lead the conversation and convey more information. Intentionally or not, it very cleverly makes Louis’ subjects feel in charge when answering his questions.”
Act like you don’t know anything. At all.
At first this might seem counter-intuitive. After all, if you don’t appear intelligent then what obligation does your interviewee have to hand you an intelligent answer?
Yet that’s how Theroux presents himself. When meeting a subject after weeks of research, he still asks what appears to be the most basic of questions. For instance, when Theroux met with Pastor Fred Phelps – then the head of the Westboro Baptist Church – after weeks of preperation one of the first things he asks is “how many children do you have?”. The query is shot down and the interview ends. Was that a mess up?
Theroux later clarifies to another Westboro member: “I wanted to know how many he said he had. I knew that he had 13, but four had fallen away…I wanted to hear what he had to say about it.” So, even though the question was rejected, it still tells Theroux and the audience it’s a troubling issue for Phelps.
Yet asking such innocuous questions has another purpose: it makes you look ignorant. And if that ignorance is mistaken for stupidity, it completely changes how the interviewee behaves. “It’s something the police do a lot,” says Professor Lury. “If you withdraw information and don’t let people know you’re clever then they think they’ve got the power in the conversation. It’s very calming – the complete opposite of what Paxman does, showing he’s got all the facts.”
It’s a phenomenon that psychologist Michael Argyle found: both participants of a conversation try to ‘synchronise’ or ‘mesh’ their interactions, meaning one person will feel compelled to carry the conversation. “It’s a theory normally applied to the child/adult relationship, but Theroux is the child in his interviews,” says Lury. “He presents himself as somebody with no social skills. This is good: it’s an amazing trick of an interviewer that the subject feels like they’ve got to help them.”
If you want to see this technique at its most extreme then look towards another ‘journalist’: Borat. Yup, Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic creation. “He got away with things because he was supposed to be this imbecile character. If you’re a nice enough person, you tolerated and accommodated Borat,” explains Lury. “In the best-meaning way, Theroux and Borat share this trait.”
It’s this accommodation that lets a subject’s persona slip and draws out behaviour that they secretly think is acceptable. “By coming across as if you don’t have any social skills the other person will think ‘oh, that’s why they’re asking such a stupid question’ – he doesn’t know any better. And they’ll give you give an answer, no matter how silly.”
Lesson learned: if you want to be more Theroux then be more Borat first. It may sound like an insult, but by appearing that he knows less than he does about an interviewee – and throwing in some submissive body language – Theroux is actively helped along by his subjects. It’s a huge paradox, but one that explains, at least in part, why he’s one of the strongest and smartest communicators on TV.
Louis Theroux: Altered States is on Sunday at 9pm on BBC2
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