Body Language – Territorial and Ownership Gestures


People lean against other people or objects to show a territorial claim to that object or person. Leaning can also be used as a method, of dominance or intimidation when the object being leaned on belongs to someone else. For example, if you are going to take a photograph of a friend and his new car, boat, home or other personal belonging, you will inevitably find that he leans against his newly acquired property, putting his foot on it or his arm around it (Figure 130). When he touches the property, it becomes an extension of his body and in this way he shows others that it belongs to him. Young lovers continually hold hands or put their arms around one another in public and social situations to show others the claim that they have on each other. The business executive puts his feet on his desk or desk drawers or leans against his office doorway to show his claim to that office and its furnishings.

However, an easy way to intimidate someone is to lean against, sit upon or use their possessions without their permission. In addition to the obvious abuses of another’s territory or possessions such as sitting at his desk or borrowing his car without asking, there are other very subtle intimidation techniques. One is to lean against the doorway in another’s office or to inadvertently sit in his chair.

As already mentioned, a sales person calling on a customer at his home is well advised to ask him ‘Which seat is yours?’ before he sits down, as sitting in the wrong chair intimidates the customer and puts him offside, which can have a detrimental effect on the chance of a successful sale.

Some people, like the man shown in Figure 131, are habitual doorway leaners and go through life intimidating most people from the first introduction. These people are well advised to practise an erect stance with palms visible to make a favourable impression on others. People form 90 per cent of their opinion about you in the first ninety seconds of meeting you, and you never get a second chance to make a first impression!


Management personnel are particularly guilty of continually using the following gestures. It has been noted that employees who have been newly appointed to management positions suddenly begin to use them, despite the fact that they seldom used them prior to their promotion.

It would be normal to assume that the position of the man in Figure 132 reflects an easygoing, relaxed and carefree attitude, because that is in fact what it is. The leg-overchair gesture not only signifies the man’s ownership of that particular chair or space, but also signals that customary etiquettes may be relaxed.

It is common to see two close friends seated like this, laughing and joking with each other, but let’s consider the impact and meaning of this gesture in different circumstances. Take this typical situation: an employee has a personal problem and he goes into the boss’s office to ask his advice on a possible solution. As the employee explains, he leans forward in the chair, his hands on his knees, his face down and looking dejected and his tone of voice lowered. The boss listens intently, sitting motionless, then suddenly leans back in his chair and puts one leg over the arm. In these circumstances the boss’s attitude has changed to lack of concern or indifference because of his carefree gesture. In other words, he has little concern for the employee or his problem and he may even feel that his time is being wasted with the ‘same old story’.

A further question needs to be answered: what is the boss indifferent about? He may have considered the employee’s problem, decided that it’s not really a major one and he may even have become uninterested in or indifferent towards the employee. While he remains in the leg-over-chair position, he will probably have a concerned look on his face throughout the discussion to cover up his lack of interest. He may even terminate the discussion by telling his employee that he need not worry and that the problem will simply go away. When the employee leaves the office, the boss may breathe a sigh of relief and say to himself, ‘Thank heavens he’s gone!’ and take his leg off the chair.

If the boss’s chair has no arms (which is unlikely; this is usually the visitor’s chair) he may be seen with one or both feet on the desk (Figure 133). If his superior enters the office, it is unlikely that the boss would use such an obvious territorial/ownership gesture, but would resort to more subtle versions such as putting his foot on the bottom drawer of his desk, or, if there are no drawers in the desk, placing his foot hard against the leg of the desk to stake his claim to it.

These gestures can be quite annoying if they occur during negotiation, and it is vital that the person should change to a different position because the longer he stays in the leg-over-chair or feet-on-desk position, the longer he will have an indifferent or hostile attitude. An easy way to do this is to hand him something that he cannot reach and ask him to lean across and look at it, or, if you and he have a similar sense of humour, tell him he has a split in his trousers.

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