FOLDED ARMS GESTURES
Hiding behind a barrier is a normal human response that we learn at an early age to protect ourselves. As children, we hid behind solid objects such as tables, chairs, furniture and mother’s skirts whenever we found ourselves in a threatening situation.
As we grew older, this hiding behaviour became more sophisticated and by the
about six, when it was unacceptable behaviour to hide behind solid objects,
to fold our arms tightly across our chests whenever a threatening situation
During our teens, we learned to make this crossed-arms gesture a little less
Research conducted into the folded arm position in the United States has
some interesting results. A group of students was asked to attend a series
of lectures and
each student was instructed to keep his legs uncrossed, arms unfolded and to
casual, relaxed sitting position. At the end of the lectures each student
was tested on his
retention and knowledge of the subject matter and his attitude toward the
recorded. A second group of students was put through the same process, but
students were instructed to keep their arms tightly folded across their
the lectures. The results showed that the group with the folded arms had
Many people claim that they habitually take the arms folded position because it is comfortable. Any gesture will feel comfortable when you have the corresponding attitude; that is, if you have a negative, defensive or nervous attitude, the folded arms position will feel good.
Remember that in non-verbal communication, the meaning of the message is also in the receiver, not only the sender. You may feel ‘comfortable’ with your arms crossed or your back and neck stiffened, but studies have shown that the reception of these gestures is negative.
Standard Arm-Cross Gesture
Both arms are folded together across the chest as an attempt to ‘hide’ from an unfavourable situation. There are many arm-folding positions, but this book will discuss the three most common ones. The standard arm-cross gesture (Figure 70) is a universal gesture signifying the same defensive or negative attitude almost everywhere. It is commonly seen when a person is among strangers in public meetings, queues, cafeterias, elevators or anywhere that people feel uncertain or insecure.
During a recent lecture tour in the United States, I opened one particular
deliberately defaming the character of several highly respected men who were
well-known to the seminar audience and who were attending the conference.
Immediately following the verbal attack, the members of the audience were
asked to old the positions and gestures they had taken. They were all quite amused
pointed out that about 90 per cent of them had taken the folded arms
immediately after my verbal attack began. This clearly shows that most
people will take
an arms folded position when they disagree with what they are hearing. Many
speakers have failed to communicate their message to the audience because
not seen the folded arms gestures of their listeners. Experienced speakers
know that this
gesture demonstrates the necessity of using a good ‘ice breaker’ to move the
into a more receptive posture that will alter the listeners’ attitude
towards the speaker.
When you see the arm-cross gesture occur during a face-to-face encounter, it
reasonable to assume that you may have said something with which the other
disagrees, so it may be pointless continuing your line of argument even
though the other
person may be verbally agreeing with you. The fact is that the non-verbal
not lie -the verbal medium does. Your objective at this point should be to
try to discover
the cause of the arms-folded gesture and to move the person into a more
This moves him into a more open posture and attitude. Asking the person to lean forward to look at a visual presentation can also be an effective means of opening the folded-arms position. Another useful method is to lean forward with your palms facing up and say, ‘I can see you have a question, what would you like to know?’ or, ‘What do you think?’ and then sit back to indicate that it is the other person’s turn to speak. By leaving your palms visible you non-verbally tell the other person that you would like an open, honest answer. As a salesman, I would never proceed with the presentation of my product until I had uncovered the prospective buyer’s reason for suddenly folding his arms. More often than not, I discovered that the buyer had a hidden objection that most other sales people might never have discovered because they missed seeing the buyer’s non-verbal signal that he was negative about some aspect of the sales presentation.
Arm Gripping Gesture
You will notice that this arm-cross gesture is characterised by the hands tightly gripping the upper arms to reinforce the position and to stop any attempt to unfold the arms and expose the body. The arms can often be gripped so tight that the fingers and knuckles turn white as the blood circulation is cut off. This arm-fold style is common to people sitting in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting-rooms, or first-time air travellers who are waiting for the plane to lift off. It shows a negative restrained attitude. In a lawyer’s office the prosecutor may be seen using a fists-clenched arm-cross while the defence may have taken the arm-gripping position. Status can influence arm-folding gestures. A superior type can make his superiority felt in the presence of persons he has just met by not folding his arms. Say, for example, that at a company social function, the general manager is introduced to several new employees whom he has not met. Having greeted them with a dominant handshake, he stands at the social distance from the new employees with his hands by his side, behind his back in the superior palm-in-palm position (see Figure 44), or with one hand in his pocket. He rarely folds his arms to show the slightest hint of nervousness. Conversely, after shaking hands with the boss, the new employees take full or partial arm-fold gestures because of their apprehension about being in the presence of the company’s top man. Both the general manager and the new employees feel comfortable with their respective gestures as each, is signalling his status relative to the other. But what happens when the general manager meets a young, up-and-coming executive who is also a superior type and who may even feel that he is as important as the general manager? The likely outcome is that after the two give each other a dominant handshake, the young executive will take an arm-fold gesture with both thumbs pointing vertically upwards (Figure 73). This gesture is the defensive version of both arms being held horizontally in front of the body with both thumbs up to show that the user is ‘cool’, a gesture characterised by Henry Winkler who played the Fonz in the television series Happy Days. The thumbs-up gesture is our way of showing that we have a self-confident attitude and the folded arms give a feeling of protection.
People who carry weapons or wear armour rarely use defensive arm-fold gestures because their weapon or armour provides sufficient body protection. Police officers who wear guns, for example, rarely fold their arms unless they are standing guard and they normally use the fist-clenched position to show quite clearly that nobody is permitted to pass where they stand.
PARTIAL ARM-CROSS BARRIERS
DISGUISED ARM-CROSS GESTURES
Disguised arm-cross gestures are highly sophisticated gestures used by
are continually exposed to others. This group includes politicians, sales
television personalities and the like who do not want their audience to
detect that they
are unsure of themselves or nervous. Like all arm-cross gestures, one arm
in front of the body to grasp the other arm but instead of the arms folding,
touches a handbag, bracelet, watch, shirt cuff or other object on or near
the other arm
(Figure 76). Once again the barrier is formed and the secure feeling is
cufflinks were popular, men were often seen adjusting them as they crossed a
dance floor where they were in full view of others. As cufflinks lost their
man would adjust the band on his watch, check the contents of his wallet,
clasp or rub
his hands together, play with a button on his cuff or use any other gesture
allow the arms to cross in front of the body. To the trained observer,
gestures are a dead giveaway because they achieve no real purpose except as
an attempt to disguise nervousness. A good place to observe these gestures
is anywhere that people
Women are less obvious than men in their use of disguised arm barrier gestures because they can grasp such things as handbags or purses when they become unsure of themselves (Figure 77). One of the most common versions of this is holding a glass of beer or wine with two hands. Did it ever occur to you that you need only one hand to hold a glass of wine? The use of two hands allows the nervous person to form an almost undetectable arm barrier. Having observed people using disguised arm barrier signals on many occasions, we have found that these gestures are used by almost everyone. Many well-known figures in society also use disguised barrier signals in tense situations and are usually completely unaware that they are doing so (Figure 78).
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