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Body Language: What Message Does Crossing One’s Arms Convey?

Let me hear your body talk

Quick psychology test! What impressions does the following image convey to you?

Three people with arms crossed
Three people with arms crossed

Toastmasters say this posture conveys a negative message:

Crossed arms hold your feelings in and keep other people’s out. They show that you’ve set up roadblocks beyond which no person dares travel. Stay with this position for too long and you find yourself feeling shut off and negative.

…Hiding behind a barrier is a normal response we learn at an early age to protect ourselves. As children, we hid behind solid objects such as tables, chairs, furniture and mother’s skirt whenever we found ourselves in a threatening situation. As we grew older, this hiding behavior became more sophisticated and by the age of about six, when it was unacceptable behavior to hide behind solid objects, we learned to fold our arms tightly across our chests whenever a threatening situation arose.

The arms crossed gesture can evolve and develop more nuanced forms during our adult years to become less obvious to others. By folding one or both arms across the chest, a barrier is formed that is an unconscious attempt to block out what we perceive as a threat or undesirable circumstances. The arms fold neatly across the heart and lungs regions to protect these vital organs from being injured, so it’s likely that arm-crossing is inborn.

Monkeys and chimps also do it to protect themselves from a frontal attack. One thing’s certain: when a person has a nervous, negative or defensive attitude, it’s very likely he will fold his arms firmly on his chest, showing that he feels threatened.

…The arms crossed on chest gesture is universal and is decoded with the same defensive or negative meaning almost everywhere [Westside Toastmasters, “Chapter 4: What Arm Gestures Convey,” retrieved 2018.10.27].

One FBI veteran and body language experts says the Toastmasters’ interpretation is a “simplistic misconception” and offers broader interpretations of crossing one’s arms across one’s chest:

…In a way, it is like a self-hug—and it’s comforting for that moment.

…When we’re stressed, we receive comfort by crossing our arms across the torso so we can then reach across and massage our arms with our opposite hands. This behavior, which helps to calm and soothe us, serves the same purpose as wringing our hands—only more so.

…Men may also do this when they feel insecure around another male. In their famous 1960 presidential debate, Richard Nixon crossed his arms when talking to John F. Kennedy off the air, because, as his biographer noted, Nixon always felt insecure around “Ivy league types,” even though he was Vice President at the time and had international stature.

…Speaking of insecurity, when we’re scared or experiencing high anxiety, arm crossing helps us to deal with anxiousness or psychological distress.

…we use our crossed arms when we are upset, but this is mostly as a form of self-restraint and, again, to comfort ourselves. Children do it all the time. When asked to do something they don’t want to do, they cross their arms, sometimes making fists, squeezing their torso tightly, almost like a straight jacket.

…Men in particular will use the crossed arms pose to make themselves look bigger, but I have also seen female police officers do it. Bouncers at clubs do this all the time, as do other men who feel they need to intimidate others.

…Next to walking away, the crossed arms can help create a psychological and physical barrier [Joe Navarro, “9 Truths Exposing a Myth About Body Language,” Psychology Today, 2014.10.06].

Insular, self-comforting, insecure, intimidating… why send any of those messages?

Here’s the full image from above:

Carl Perry, Al Novstrup, Drew Dennert, campaign photo, retrieved from Facebook 2018.10.27.
Carl Perry, Al Novstrup, Drew Dennert, campaign photo, retrieved from Facebook 2018.10.27.

Of myriad images they could have posed for or pulled from past appearances, District 3 Republicans chose this arms-crossed image to advertise themselves to local voters.

Cory Allen Heidelberger, speaking at Senate candidate forum, 2018.09.15.
Really, guys, let me help…. Cory Allen Heidelberger, speaking at Senate candidate forum, 2018.09.15.

In fairness, I invite voters and weekend psychologists to compare the body language and other psychological messages sent via billboard to votes by Novstrup’s opponent in the District 3 Senate race:

Heidelberger for Senate, billboard, September 2018
Heidelberger for Senate, billboard, September 2018
Heidelberger for Senate, campaign billboard, October 2018
Heidelberger for Senate, campaign billboard, October 2018


  1. mike from iowa 2018-10-27 11:03

    It is a natural defensive posture telling the world you aren’t on the warpath. but you are alert and ready for come what may.

  2. bearcreekbat 2018-10-27 11:30

    Great link Ben!

  3. mike from iowa 2018-10-27 13:02

    ON-J was much prettier than the other singers.

  4. Porter Lansing 2018-10-27 13:16

    In sales training body language class was important. Here are two tips but first I’ll give you the most powerful pose. It conveys confidence, insight and empathy. Put your hands together over your belly, fingers intertwined, like you’re praying. Now, extend your forefingers straight ahead or slightly pointing down with fingertips touching. Thumbs go straight up with thumb tips touching. Make that your power pose. Even if you’re scared to death, with your hands showing confidence you’ll be able “fake it ‘til you make it”
    – To sound authoritative keep your voice down.
    Before a speech or important telephone call, allow your voice to relax into its optimal pitch (a technique I learned from a speech therapist) by keeping your lips together and making the sounds “um hum, um hum, um hum.” And if you are a female, watch that your voice doesn’t rise at the ends of sentences as if you are asking a question or seeking approval. Instead, when stating your opinion, use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.
    – To improve your memory, uncross your arms and legs
    Body language researchers Allan and Barbara Pease report a fascinating finding from one of their studies: When a group of volunteers attended a lecture and sat with unfolded arms and legs, they remembered 38% more than a group that attended the same lecture and sat with folded arms and legs. To improve your retention, uncross your arms and legs. If you see your audience exhibiting defensive body language, change tactics, take a break, or get them to move—and don’t try to persuade them until their bodies open up.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-10-27 14:34

    Ben! Bearcreekbat! What a great pair of contrasting musical takes!

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-10-27 14:36

    Porter, that hands thing: isn’t that what Trump always does when sitting with real world leaders?

    Unfolding as a memory technique? Interesting!

  7. Debbo 2018-10-27 15:07

    Bodies dont just talk, they shout louder than words. Very interesting stuff everyone. I try to pay attention to body language, my own and the other’s.

    It seems to me that people who feel a need to constantly adopt aggressive postures are quite insecure. A good example is the yellow-haired gibbon in DC.

  8. Donald Pay 2018-10-27 17:13

    This is a pose. It is not a real indication of anything except that these clowns allowed someone to bend them like mannequins into a shape we’ve seen when Donald Trump is actually reacting, as a little boy, to unpleasant things. If you watch little children, they adopt this pose when their Mommies won’t buy them some candy at the grocery store check-out. Virility? I’d say a pose of pretend strength when you know you are completely weak.

    These guys, though, have smiles, almost smirks, on their faces, as if they don’t realize what total tools they are, or perhaps that they are actually proud to be such weaklings. Weakness, tantrums and smirks. Add in the genuflection to their gun-toting mob and that’s the Republican Party. It says to me: eff u, South Dakotans, we’ll do what we want. Smack those weaklings smirks off their faces and watch those fools cower.

  9. Porter Lansing 2018-10-27 20:00

    Al Novstrup’s legislative record shows that he has a peculiar obsession with the sexual orientation of students.
    ~ The Novstrup family operates amusement parks for children for its livelihood. In Aberdeen, their Thunder Road is operated in conjunction with the city’s Wylie Park. Some of us who know of Novstrup’s perverse obsession with gender issues and his malicious streak of character in maligning other people simply do not chance exposing children in our charge to it.
    ~ We can eliminate Novstrup’s pernicious influence in the State Senate by voting for Cory Heidelberger. And we can keep our children away from Thunder Road in Wylie Park.
    ~ That is how children can best be protected.
    – Northern Valley Beacon 10/27/2018

  10. Debbo 2018-10-27 20:07

    I note their sleeves have been turned up. That is the universal male signal for “Wow, we really work hard! We even rolled up our sleeves!”

    The whole image is just silly.

  11. grudgenutz 2018-10-27 21:51

    The three sleeved-rolled arms-folded characters are liable to be re-elected despite the inability of any one of them to tell their constituents why he should be re-elected.

    There is still hope for me to be elected.

  12. OldSarg 2018-10-27 21:58

    Porter, it would seem to me accusing a man of hurting children when you know you are making it up is probably one of the nastiest things a person could ever do. You should ask Cory to pull that posting. It is actually evil.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-10-27 22:31

    OS, forward your comment to the SDGOP, see if they heed your advice on their deceptive postcards.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-10-27 22:32

    But I’m glad to see the majority agree with my assessment that if you’re going to choose one image to represent you in public, the image chosen by the Republicans is not it.

  15. grudznick 2018-10-27 23:28

    I advocate voting for Bob. Please, all of you who have the opportunity, vote for Bob!! grudznick implores you to vote for grudgenutz. He’s a pretty swell guy.

  16. grudznick 2018-10-27 23:32

    Wonderful! Mr. H does look evil in that picture!!! I love it.

    Evil is good. Evil is what fixes what ails you. Evil is OK. Embrace Evil!

    And, with a spiffy haircut like that, and Al’s bangs and churchiness, this really boils down to a vote between good and evil.

    grudznick supports evil.

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