Body Language – Arm Barriers


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 age of about six, when it was unacceptable behaviour to hide behind solid objects, we learned to fold our arms tightly across our chests whenever a threatening situation arose. During our teens, we learned to make this crossed-arms gesture a little less obvious by relaxing our arms a little and combining the gesture with crossed legs.

As we grow older, we develop the arm crossing gesture to the point where it has become less obvious to others. By folding one or both arms across the chest, a barrier is formed that is, in essence, at attempt to block out the impending threat or undesirable circumstances. One thing is certain; when a person has a nervous, negative or defensive attitude, he will fold his arms firmly on his chest, a strong signal that he feels threatened.

Research conducted into the folded arm position in the United States has shown 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 take a 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 lecturer was recorded. A second group of students was put through the same process, but these students were instructed to keep their arms tightly folded across their chests throughout the lectures. The results showed that the group with the folded arms had learned and retained 38 per cent less than the group who kept its arms unfolded. The second group also had a more critical opinion of the lectures and of the lecturer.

These tests reveal that, when the listener folds his arms, not only has he more negative thoughts about the speaker, but he is also paying less attention to what is being said. It is for this reason that training centres should have chairs with arms to allow the attendees to leave their arms uncrossed.

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 meeting by 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 hold the positions and gestures they had taken. They were all quite amused when I pointed out that about 90 per cent of them had taken the folded arms position 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 public speakers have failed to communicate their message to the audience because they have 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 audience 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 is reasonable to assume that you may have said something with which the other person 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 medium does 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 receptive position. Remember: as long as the arms-folded gesture remains, the negative attitude will remain. The attitude causes the gestures to occur and prolonging the gesture forces the attitude to remain.

A simple but effective method of breaking the folded-arms position is to hand the person a pen, a book or something that forces him to unfold his arms to reach forward.

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.

Reinforced Arm-Cross

If as well as the full arm-cross gesture the person has clenched fists, it indicates a hostile and defensive attitude. This cluster is often combined with clenched teeth and red face, in which case a verbal or physical attack may be imminent. A submissive palms-up approach is needed to discover what caused the hostile gestures if the reason is not already apparent. The person using this gesture cluster has an attacking attitude, as opposed to the person in Figure 70, who has taken a defending armcross position.

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.

Sales people need to analyse why a buyer may have taken this gesture to know whether their approach is effective. If the thumbs-up gesture has come towards the end of the sales presentation and is combined with many other positive gestures used by the buyer, the sales person can move comfortably into closing the sale and asking for the order. If, on the other hand, at the close of the sale the buyer moves into the fist-clenched arm cross position (Figure 71) and has a poker face, the sales person can be inviting disastrous consequences by attempting to ask for the order. Instead it is better if he quickly goes back to his sales presentation and asks more questions to try to discover the buyer’s objection. In selling, if the buyer verbalises, ‘No’, it can become difficult to change his decision. The ability to read body language allows you to see the negative decision before it is verbalised and gives you time to take an alternative course of action.

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.


The full arm-cross gesture is sometimes too obvious to use around others because it tells them that we are fearful. Occasionally we substitute a subtler version – the partial arm cross, in which one arm swings across the body to hold or touch the other arm to form the barrier, as shown in Figure 75.

The partial arm barrier is often seen at meetings where a person may be a stranger to the group or is lacking in self-confidence. Another popular version of a partial arm barrier is holding hands with oneself (Figure 74), a gesture commonly used by people who stand before a crowd to receive an award or give a speech. Desmond Morris says that this gesture allows a person to relive the emotional security that he experienced as a child when his parent held his hand under fearful circumstances.


Disguised arm-cross gestures are highly sophisticated gestures used by people who are continually exposed to others. This group includes politicians, sales people, 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 swings across in front of the body to grasp the other arm but instead of the arms folding, one hand 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 achieved. When cufflinks were popular, men were often seen adjusting them as they crossed a room or dance floor where they were in full view of others. As cufflinks lost their popularity, a 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 that would allow the arms to cross in front of the body. To the trained observer, however, these 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 walk past a group of onlookers, such as a young man who crosses the dance floor to ask an attractive young lady to dance with him or someone crossing an open room to receive a trophy.

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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