Body language: Crossing the arms

By Hanan Parvez

Crossing the arms across the chest is a classic gesture of defensiveness. This defensiveness can manifest as uneasiness, shyness or insecurity.

When a person feels threatened by a situation, he crosses his arms across his chest creating a barrier that helps him protect his vital organs- the lungs and the heart.

When a person finds himself in an undesirable situation, you'll find him folding his arms and if the undesirability is intense, the arms-crossing may be accompanied by legs-crossing.

A person who's waiting for someone and is feeling awkward at the same time might do this gesture. 

In a group the person who doesn’t feel confident is usually the one who has his arms crossed. 

When someone suddenly hears a bad news, he instantly crosses his arms as if to symbolically ‘protect himself’ from the bad news.

You'll also observe this gesture when a person feels offended. Defense is a natural reaction to an offence. When someone is humiliated or criticized, he’s likely to cross his arms to assume the defensive mode. 

If you see two people talking and one of them suddenly crosses his arms, you can safely assume that the other said or did something that the first person didn't like.

folded arms

Defensiveness + hostility

If the arms are crossed and the fists are clenched then this indicates an attitude of hostility in addition to defensiveness. 

We clench our fists when we're angry and are about to punch someone, literally or symbolically. This is a very negative body language position that a person can acquire and you should try to figure out what’s bothering the person before continuing your interaction with them.

man with crossed arms and clenched fists

Excessive defensiveness

If the person is feeling extremely defensive and insecure, the arms-crossed gesture is accompanied by hands tightly gripping the biceps. 

It's an unconscious attempt at a self-hug so that the person can relieve himself of his insecurity. The person is doing the best he can to avoid exposing his vulnerable front portion of the body.

This gesture is commonly observed in the dentist’s waiting room or in a person whose friend or kin is undergoing a major operation while he's waiting outside. Those who are scared by air travel may also be seen doing this gesture as they wait for the take-off.

I’m defensive, but it’s cool

Sometimes a person, while feeling defensive, tries to give the impression that ‘everything’s cool’. This is indicated when, along with the arms crossed gesture, both the thumbs are raised and pointed upwards. As the person talks, he gestures with his thumbs to emphasize his points.

It's a good indication that the person is gaining power and shifting from the defensive position to the powerful position. After a few seconds or minutes, the person may abandon the arms-crossed defensive position and ‘open up’ completely.

Defensiveness, dominance, and submission

The typical defensive position also signifies a submissive attitude. The person crosses his arms, the body becomes stiff and symmetrical i.e. the right side is a mirror image of the left side. The body isn't tilted in any way.

However, when the arms-crossed position is accompanied by a slight tilt or twist of the body such that the right side of the body is not a mirror image of the left side, it shows that the person is feeling dominant. He may also lean slightly backwards as he takes this position.

This gesture is usually taken by high-status people when they pose for a photograph. Being clicked makes them feel a bit vulnerable but they hide it by slightly twisting their body and putting up a smile. 

Picture a standing policeman posing for a photo with arms crossed and shoulders parallel to you- the observer. Looks a bit odd because there's just defensiveness. Now picture him with arms crossed but at a slight angle from you. Now, dominance has been brought into the equation.

During interrogations when the suspect, though feeling insecure, wants to piss off the interrogator, he might take up this gesture.

man with crossed arms
"I ain't tellin you nothin"
Final words

Some people claim that they cross their arms habitually or just because it feels comfortable. It could be true so you got to figure out what’s really going on by looking at the context of the situation. 

If a person is alone in a room, watching a funny movie, then it surely doesn't indicate defensiveness and the person may just be trying to make himself more comfortable.

But if the person crosses his arms while interacting with particular people but not others, it's a clear sign that something is bothering him. We don’t cross our arms when we're feeling good, having fun, are interested or excited. If we're ‘closing up’ ourselves then there has to be some reason behind it.

Avoid this gesture as much as you can because it decreases your credibility. Tell me, will you believe a speaker’s words if he talks with his arms crossed? Absolutely not! You’ll think that he is insecure or is hiding something or is misleading or deceiving you. 

Also, you might pay little attention to what he has to say because your mind is preoccupied with the negative feelings that you developed towards him due to his defensive gesture. 



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