Body Language – Other Popular Gestures and Actions

Straddling a Chair

Centuries ago, men used shields to protect themselves from the spears and clubs of the enemy, and today, civilised man uses whatever he has at his disposal to symbolise this same protective behaviour when he is under physical or verbal attack. This includes standing behind a gate, doorway, fence, desk, the open door of his motor vehicle and straddling a chair (Figure 91). The back of the chair provides a shield to protect his body and can transform him into an aggressive, dominant warrior. Most chair straddlers are dominant individuals who will try to take control of other people or groups when they become bored with the conversation, and the back of the chair serves as good protection from any ‘attack’ by other members of the group. He is often discreet and can slip into the straddle position almost unnoticed.

The easiest way to disarm the straddler is to stand or sit behind him, making him feel vulnerable to attack and forcing him to change his position, becoming less aggressive. This can work well in groups because the straddler will have his back exposed; this forces him to change position.

But how do you handle a one-to-one confrontation with a straddler on a swivel chair? It is pointless to try to reason with him, particularly when he is on a swivelling merry- go-round, so the best defence is non-verbal attack. Conduct your conversation standing above and looking down upon the straddler and move within his personal territory. This is very disconcerting to him and he may even fall backwards off his chair in an attempt to avoid being forced to change position.

If you have a straddler coming to visit you and his aggressive attitude annoys you, be sure to seat him on a fixed chair that has arms to stop him from taking his favourite position.

Picking Imaginary Lint

When a person disapproves of the opinions or attitudes of others but feels constrained in giving his point of view, the non-verbal gestures that occur are known as displacement gestures, that is, they result from a withheld opinion. Picking imaginary pieces of lint from the clothing is one such gesture. The lintpicker usually looks away from the other people towards the floor while performing this minor, irrelevant action. This is one of the most common signals of disapproval and when the listener continually picks imaginary pieces of lint off his clothing it is a good indication that he does not like what is being said, even though he may be verbally agreeing with everything.

Open your palms and say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ or, ‘I can see you have some thoughts on this. Would you mind telling me what they are?’ Sit back, arms apart, palms visible, and wait for the answer. If the person says he is in agreement with you but continues to pick the imaginary lint, you may need to take an even more direct approach to discover his hidden objection.


This book would not be complete without a discussion of the basic head movements, the two most widely used being the head nod and the head shake. The head nod is a positive gesture used in most cultures to signify, ‘Yes’, or affirmation. Research conducted with people who have been deaf, dumb and blind from birth shows that they also use this gesture to signify the affirmative, which has given rise to the theory that this may be an inborn gesture. The headshake, usually meaning ‘No’, is also claimed by some to be an inborn action; however, others have theorised that it is the first gesture a human being learns. They believe that when the newborn baby has had enough milk, he shakes his head from side to side to reject his mother’s breast. Similarly, the young child who has had enough to eat uses the head shake to reject his parent’s attempt to spoonfeed him.

One of the easiest ways to uncover a disguised objection when dealing with others is to watch if the person uses the headshake gesture while verbalising his agreement with you. Take, for example, the person who verbalises, ‘Yes, I can see your point of view’, or, ‘I really enjoy working here’, or, ‘We’ll definitely do business after Christmas’, whilst shaking his head from side to side. Even though this may sound convincing, the head shake gesture signals that a negative attitude exists and you would be well advised to reject what the person has said and to question him further.

Basic Head Positions

There are three basic head positions. The first is with the head up (Figure 93) and is the position taken by the person who has a neutral attitude about what he is hearing. The head usually remains still and may occasionally give small nods. Hand-to-cheek evaluation gestures are often used with this position.

When the head tilts to one side it shows that interest has developed (Figure 94). Charles Darwin was one of the first to note that humans, as well as animals, tilt their heads to one side when they become interested in something. If you are giving a sales presentation or delivering a speech, always make a point of looking for this gesture among your audience. When you see them tilt their heads and lean forward using hand-to-chin evaluation gestures, you are getting the point across. Women use this head position to show interest in an attractive male. When others are speaking to you, all you need do is use the head-tilted position and head nods to make the listener feel warm towards you.

When the head is down, it signals that the attitude is negative and even judgmental (Figure 95). Critical evaluation clusters are normally made with the head down and, unless you can get the person’s head up or tilted, you may have a communication problem. As a public speaker, you will often be confronted by an audience whose members are all seated with head down and arms folded on the chest. Professional speakers and trainers usually do something that involves audience participation before they begin their address. This is intended to get the audience’s heads up and to get them involved. If the speaker’s ploy is successful, the audience’s next head position will be the head tilted.

Both Hands Behind Head

This gesture is typical of such professionals as accountants, lawyers, sales managers, bank managers or people who are feeling confident, dominant, or superior about something. If we could read the person’s mind, he would be saying something like, ‘I have all the answers’ or, ‘Maybe one day you’ll be as smart as I am’, or even ‘Everything’s under control’. It is also a gesture used by the ‘know-it-all’ individual and many people find it irritating when someone does it to them. Lawyers habitually use this with their peers as a non-verbal demonstration of how knowledgeable they are. It can also be used as a territorial sign to show that the person has staked a claim to that particular area. The man in Figure 96 has also taken a figure 4 leg lock position which shows that he not only feels superior but is also likely to want to argue.

There are several ways to handle this gesture, depending on the circumstances in which it occurs. If you want to discover the reason for the person’s superior attitude, lean forward with palms up and say, ‘I can see that you know about this. Would you care to comment?’ Then sit back, palms still visible, and wait for an answer. Another method is to force the man to change his position, which will in turn change his attitude. This can be accomplished by placing something just out of his reach and asking, ‘Have you seen this?’, forcing him to lean forward. Copying the gesture is another good way to handle it. If you want to show that you agree with the other person, all you need do is copy his gestures.

On the other hand, if the person using the hands-behind-head gesture is reprimanding you, you will non-verbally intimidate him by copying this gesture. For example, two lawyers will use the gesture in each other’s presence (Figure 97) to show equality and agreement, but the mischievous schoolboy would infuriate the school principal if he used it in his office.

The origin of this gesture is uncertain, but it is likely that the hands are used as an imaginary armchair in which the person lies back and relaxes.

Research into this gesture showed that in one particular insurance company, twenty-seven out of thirty sales managers used it regularly in the presence of their sales people or subordinates but seldom in the presence of their superiors. When they were with their superiors, the same managers used submissive and defensive gesture clusters.

Previous post Body Language – Leg Barriers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *