The leg and feet gestures can provide the most accurate clues to someone’s mental state. The more a body part is located away from the brain, the less aware we are of what it is doing and the less control we have over its unconscious movements.
In fact, the leg and feet gestures can sometimes tell you what a person is thinking more accurately than facial expressions. This is because we are much more aware of our facial expressions and hence can manipulate them quite easily but no one ever thinks of manipulating their leg and feet movements.
The ankle lock
In a seated position, people sometimes lock their ankles and withdraw their feet below the chair. Sometimes this ankle locking can take the form of locking the feet around the leg of the chair.
Men’s knees are usually spread out and they may clench their hands or grip the armrest of the chair tightly as they lock their ankles. Women’s legs are also withdrawn, however, their knees are usually close together with feet to one side.
The person doing this gesture is holding back a negative reaction. And behind a negative reaction, there is always some negative emotion. So, a person doing this gesture simply has a negative emotion that he’s not expressing. He might be afraid, angry or uncertain about what’s going on but has decided not to reveal it.
Withdrawn feet indicate the withdrawn attitude of the person doing this gesture. When we are more into the conversation, our feet are not withdrawn but rather get ‘involved’ in the conversation. They stretch out towards the people we are conversing with and don’t hide back in the dreary cavern below the chair.
This gesture is common in salespeople because they inevitably have to train themselves to hold back their negative reactions to rude customers. I don’t know about you but when I picture a salesperson, I imagine a guy wearing formal clothes and a tie, sitting in the chair in an erect position and locking his ankles below the chair as he says, “Yes, Sir!” on the phone.
Though his talking shows respect and politeness towards the customer, his locked ankles tell whole another story, clearly giving away his real attitude that maybe something like…
“Who do you think you are, you moron? I can be rude too”.
This gesture can also be observed in people waiting outside the dentist’s clinic and in suspects during police interrogations for obvious reasons.
The leg twine
The leg twine is done by women when they feel shy or timid. The top of one foot locks around the other leg below the knee, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. It may be done in both seated and standing positions. Women dressed skimpily are often seen doing this gesture, especially during intimate scenes on TV or the movies.
As the woman stands in the doorway and does this gesture, the camera deliberately focuses on the legs because this gesture is one of those submissive gestures that can drive men crazy.
Sometimes if a woman is feeling both defensive and timid, she might cross her legs and do the leg twine simultaneously as shown in the picture below…
Her face, because she seems to be smiling, tells one story and her legs tell whole another story (nervousness). So what do we trust?
Of course, the answer is ‘lower portion of the body’ for the reason I mentioned earlier. That, in fact, is a fake smile. Most probably, she put up the fake smile to look okay for the photograph. Look carefully at the face and see the fear hidden underneath.. no, seriously… go ahead. (more on identifying a fake smile)
The knee point
This gesture is also a characteristic of women. While seated, one leg is tucked under the other and the knee of the tucked leg usually points towards the person she finds interesting. This is a very informal and relaxed position and can only be assumed around people you’re comfortable with.
Jiggling/tapping the feet
In the post about anxiety behaviours, I mentioned that any shaking behaviour indicates a person’s desire to run away from the situation he’s in. We shake or tap our feet when we feel impatient or anxious in a situation. This gesture sometimes can also indicate happiness and excitement, so keep the context in mind.
The sprinter’s position
In the seated position, the toes of one foot are pressed to the ground while the heel is raised, just as the sprinters do when they are ‘on their marks’ before starting a race. This gesture indicates that the person is either ready for a hurried action or is already engaged in a hurried action.
This gesture is observed in students when they’re writing their exams and have very little time left. Picture an employee who’s working at a normal pace in his office. His co-worker barges in with a file and says, “Here, take this file, we got to work on this immediately. This is urgent!”
The employee at the desk takes a quick look at the file as his foot takes up the sprinter’s position. He’s symbolically ready for the ‘quick race’, ready to deal with the urgent task urgently.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve written 280+ articles and published one book about human behavior on this blog that has garnered over 3 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.