Speaking to a group of folk at a recent networking event, the subject of Body Language popped up. The subject of non-verbal communciation quite often arises in situations where I’m explaining what I do for gainful employment – and helping others see the importance of understanding human behaviour. How it arises? Normally, when I say I’m an Occupational Psychologist, someone will make a comment such as ‘so do you know what I’m thinking then?’.
Such comments are normally quite light-hearted (perhaps folk think I won’t have heard that particular ‘joke’ before!) and I have a range of ‘stock’ answers for certain situations….
e.g. being chatted up by unwanted attention?
answer: “Yes, and it’s not pretty”, “No because I am truly not interested” or “No, that would make me a psychic!”
In this particular situation the conversation veered towards ‘reading’ people’s body language. Immediately upon hearing me say that you can pick up quite a lot of interesting and important extra information by paying attention to the non-verbals – a lady commented that she doesn’t completely think it’s true as she often stands with her arms crossed – and she knows that is seen as ‘closed’ behaviour – but she claimed that she was simply comfortable like that and it was often the stance she took.
Before I continue to explain what might be happening in the circumstance she described – I feel the need to state that the dismissal of any theory or research due to a lack of understanding of one small element is probably not the most effective way forward – but I’m being minorly pedantic so I’ll stop and get back to body language!
I believed her when she said she was comfortable standing like that – I don’t doubt she was. I do doubt she knew the exact reason she was standing like that. As it’s her ‘normal’ stance then the movement is probably involuntary, or habitual. My first comment to her and the others standing in our group was that ‘crossing your arms’ is an often cited example of body language but one of the most important points to note about reading body language is to never take any one action alone. It is necessary to read body language as a whole and not place meaning on an individual action. If someone is facing away from you – but their feet are pointing directly towards you – it is necessary to take these actions together – and pay attention to any other actions happening.
Usually,when someone crosses their arms, it means that they’re closed for arguments. They have placed a barrier between themselves and the rest of the world as a means of protection from others. Protection from words, remarks and glances not simply physical attack.
Another possibility for crossing arms may be that they”re feeling vulnerable or insecure. Crossing your arms is like giving yourself a hug, it’s a comforting gesture.
In both of these meanings, the purpose of crossing your arms is that you feel more in control and are protected in your surroundings. If you have developed a habit of this particular gesture – it is possible that you don’t realise the reason and think that it is simply the way you normally stand. In fact the one thing I would expect is that the person crossing their arms do indeed feel much more comfortable, because their body language matches their emotional state. In fact the whole point to crossing your arms is to feel more comfortable. How other’s feel in their company however, or why they are performing the action may vary.
Remember though, that body signals must always be validated by other body signals. So, if the legs are crossed as well, and the person looks away – then its probably safe to make the assumption that the person’s mind is firmly shut!
Oh and don’t forget the context. It could just be the cold. Crossing your arms is an action we undertake when we are cold. Double check for pulled up shoulders – also an indicator of being cold – or take note of the temperature in the area…
What happens when your body language contradicts what you’re saying? People may not be able to explain why they believe/disbelieve the words because often these cues are completely unconscious – but they WILL believe the body language!
How does this change your understanding of the behaviour of others? Your reaction to others? Their reaction to you?