Body Language: What Do Crossed Arms Mean?

Body language, together with tone of voice, form part of what is called non-verbal communication.

This method of communication uses gestures as well as body and facial expressions and movements to transmit emotions and thoughts. They are usually subconscious which means that they can reflect a person’s emotional state.

Within the broad field of body language, body posture can be very informative because it conveys confidence and security or the opposite. Crossing one’s arms is a form of non-verbal communication that has received a lot of expert attention. This is a stereotypical position but should also be analysed carefully while keeping in mind that it is important to not draw conclusions about gestures without first considering the context.

Even though when someone’s arms are crossed that typically indicates that someone does not want to talk and it can also mean that someone is cold or that there chair does not have arm rests.

So, why do we often associate crossed arms with insecurity, isolation or a defensive attitude? What do we know about crossed arms?

During childhood, we often hide behind barriers to protect ourselves. When a child feels threatened they may hide behind objects like tables, chairs, furniture or even their mother’s legs.

When we reach puberty we start to realise that this gesture should not be as obvious, so we often relax our arms and cross our legs instead. As time goes on we progress to crossing our arms and it becomes less clear for people that we are interacting with. This means that when one or both arms are crossed it may be a way to create a barrier as a subconscious attempt to block something that we feel is threatening or if we find ourselves in an undesired situation.

People usually cross their arms over their vital organs such as their heart and lungs so that they do not suffer any damage. This strengthens the idea that crossing one’s arms is something innate (monkeys and chimpanzees also cross their arms to protect themselves against frontal attacks). Thus, when someone feels nervous, negative or defensive they often cross their arms to show they feel threatened.

Some people claim that they feel more comfortable with their arms crossed but one premise of non-verbal communication states that any position or gesture is comfortable when it is accompanied by a corresponding attitude. So, if the subject has a nervous, negative or defensive attitude, they may feel more comfortable with their arms cross, yet if they are having fun and interacting they will feel more relaxed and it may not be so comfortable to hold that position. Studies have shown that when members of an audience have their arms crossed during a conference, they not only have negative thoughts about the speaker but they are also not paying attention.

There are various subcategories to explain crossed arms:

  • Arms crossed over the chest: This gesture is used to create a barrier between the person who is crossing their arms and something or someone that they do not like. This is a universal gesture for almost any culture and situation that can be identified as something defensive or negative. This gesture is seen among people who do not know each other at public events, in lines, in elevators or in many other places where people feel insecure.
  • Reinforced arms crossed: This posture includes arms crossed with closed fists. This is a defensive position and indicates hostility. It may also be a precursor for a verbal or physical attack if you sense a smile with tense lips or clenched teeth and a red face.
  • Hugging the arms: In this position, the hands firmly grasp the forearms to reinforce the posture and avoid exposing the front area of the body as a way to console themselves. This posture can be commonly seen in medical or dental waiting rooms as well as airports— mainly for people that are going to fly for the first time. Hugging both arms conveys a negative and repressed attitude.
  • Arms crossed with thumbs upward: This gesture includes both thumbs pointing upward. This is common among people who are proud of themselves and are also in control of the situation. This can be seen when the individual speaks and moves their thumbs to highlight and illustrate their points. Even though the arms continue to be in a protective stance, this is a way to show others that the individual trusts themselves.

Alternative methods of crossing one’s arms.

Many people that expose themselves in public such as royalty, politicians, movie stars and television actors try to hide the fact that they are nervous or insecure.

For this reason, they prefer to transmit a cool, calm and collected attitude. However, the truth is that their possible feelings of nervousness, anxiety or apprehension are filtered through alternative forms of crossing ones arms. These situations are similar to when people cross their arms but instead of one arm crossing the body, these alternative forms usually involve touching one’s hand or holding onto a bag, bracelet, watch or cufflink. The barrier takes on a new form and gives the individual a sense of security.

Men who wear cufflinks usually adjust them when they have to cross an area where they are exposed to a large group of people. For women, some alternative barriers are less visible because they can hold on to objects like purses or wallets when they are feeling shy or insecure.

Another common and subtle barrier involves holding onto a glass or a cup with both hands because even though one hand is enough to hold a glass, both hands allow the insecure person to form a practically impenetrable barrier with their arms. Many people do this even though not many are aware of it.

Do you agree with these categories of crossing one’s arms? Do you think you take on any of these positions or use alternative methods? Tell us about your experience…!

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