Body language: Partial arm-cross gestures

When a child faces a threatening situation it hides behinds a barrier- a chair, a table, under the stairs, behind a parent, anything that can block it from the source of the threat. At about 6 years of age, this
hiding-behind-objects behavior becomes inappropriate and so the child learns to cross his arms tightly across its chest to create a barrier between itself and the threat.

Now as we grow older and become more conscious of ourselves we adopt more sophisticated ways of creating barriers when we feel threatened. Everyone knows, at least intuitively, that crossing the arms is a defensive gesture. So we adopt subtle gestures to ensure that our defensive and threatened position isn’t so obvious to the others.

These kinds of gestures comprise what are known as the partial arm-cross gestures.

What partial arm-crossing looks like

A partial arm-cross gesture involves swinging one hand across the front portion of the body and touching, holding, scratching or playing with something on the other arm or near it. A partial arm cross gesture commonly observed is where one arm swings across the body and the hand of the barrier-creating arm holds the other arm. This gesture is mostly done by women.

woman in a defensive position

The higher the hand grips the arm, the more defensive a person is feeling. It looks as if the person is hugging himself. 

When we were kids our parents used to hug us when we were sad or tense. As adults, we attempt to recreate those comfort feelings when we find ourselves in stressful situations.

Any gesture that involves moving one arm across to the other side of the body can be used for the purpose of creating a barrier. For example, men often adjust their cuff-links, play with their watch, pull the cuff button or check their phones to create these arm barriers. 

man adjusting cufflink

Where to observe these partial arm barriers

These gestures can be frequently observed in situations where a person comes in the view of a group of onlookers. The self-consciousness that results from the pressure of so many people watching makes a person want to hide themselves by creating a barrier.

You’ll notice this gesture when a person enters a room full of people he doesn’t know or when he has to walk past a group of onlookers. Celebrities often adopt subtle partial arm barriers when they come in full public view. They try their best to smile and display a ‘cool’ attitude but what they do with their arms and hands reveal their true feelings.

Travelling via the local transport, you’ll often see a passenger do this gesture as soon as he boards the bus or the train. Women do it very conspicuously by swinging one arm across and holding their handbag.

If you notice this gesture in a group, then the person doing it may either be a stranger to the group or he might be feeling insecure. Now don’t conclude that the person lacks confidence or is shy just because he does this gesture. He might be feeling insecure because of something that he just heard. 

If you are negotiating with a person, an effective way to check how the negotiation is going on is to offer some kind of refreshment to the other person. Then watch where he places the cup of tea or coffee or whatever it is that you gave him on the table.

If the person has established good rapport with you and is ‘open’ to whatever it is that you are saying, then he might place the cup on his right side on the table. On the contrary, if the person is not convinced and has a ‘closed’ attitude towards you, then he might place the cup on his left side so that he can create a barrier again and again whenever he goes for a sip.

Or it may just be that that there wasn’t enough space on his right! Non-verbal skills don’t come easy you see! You have to eliminate every other possibility.
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