Table of Contents, Body Language Resources Page Westside Toastmasters, Santa Monica and Los Angeles
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Chapter 10

HOW THE LEGS REVEAL WHAT THE MIND WANTS TO DO

Not Aware

He sat there chatting her up for the past 20 minutes, not noticing that her legs had been crossed away from him and pointing towards the nearest exit.

The farther away from the brain a body part is positioned, the less awareness we have of what it is doing. For example, most people are aware of their face and what expressions and gestures they are displaying and we can even practice some expressions to 'put on a brave face' or 'give a disapproving look', 'grin and bear it' or 'look happy' when Grandma gives you an ugly sweater again for your birthday. After our face, we are less aware of our arms and hands, then our chest and stomach and we are least aware of our legs and almost oblivious to our feet.

This means that the legs and feet are an important source of information about someone's attitude because most people are unaware of what they are doing with them and never consider faking gestures with them in the way that they would with their face. A person can look composed and in control while their foot is repetitively tapping or making short jabs in the air, revealing their frustration at not being able to escape.

Jiggling the feet is like the brain's attempt to run away from what is being experienced.

Everybody's Talking About a New Way of Walking

The way people swing their arms when they walk gives insight into their personality — or what they want you to believe they're like. When young, healthy, vibrant people walk, they walk faster than older people, which results in their arms swinging higher in front and behind, and can even make it look as if they're marching. This is partly due to their additional speed and greater muscle flexibility. As a consequence of this, the army march evolved as an exaggerated walk to portray the effect that the marchers are youthful and vigorous. This same walk has been adopted by many politicians and public figures who want to send out a message of their vitality. That is why striding is a popular gait with many politicians. Women's arms tend to swing even further back because their arms bend further out from the elbow to enable them to carry babies more effectively.

How Feet Tell the Truth

One time a series of tests was conducted with middle managers, who were instructed to lie convincingly in a series of staged interviews. The managers, regardless of gender, dramatically increased the unconscious number of foot movements they made when they were lying. Most of the managers had used fake facial expressions and tried to control their hands while lying but almost all were unaware of what their feet and legs were doing. These results were replicated by psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman in other experiments, who discovered that not only do people increase their lower body movements when they lie but observers have greater success exposing a person's lies when they can see the liar's entire body. This explains why many business executives feel comfortable only when sitting behind a desk with a solid front, where their lower body is hidden.

If you're not sure whether you're being lied to or not, look under their desk.

Glass-topped tables cause us more stress than solid tables, as our legs are in full view and so we don't feel as if we are in full control.

The Purpose of the Legs

The legs evolved in humans to serve two purposes: to move forward to get food and to run away from danger. Because the human brain is hardwired for these two objectives - to go towards what we want and move away from what we don't want - the way a person uses their legs and feet reveals where they want to go. In other words, they show a person's commitment to leaving or staying in a conversation. Open or uncrossed leg positions show an open or dominant attitude, while crossed positions reveal closed attitudes or uncertainty.

A woman who is not interested in a man will fold her arms on her chest and cross her legs away from him giving him the 'no-go' body language while an interested woman would open herself to him.

The Four Main Standing Positions

1. At Attention

This is a formal position that shows a neutral attitude with no commitment to stay or go. In male—female encounters, it is used more by women than men as it effectively keeps the legs together like a 'No Comment' signal. Schoolchildren use it when talking to a teacher, junior officers use it when talking to senior officers, people meeting royalty do it and employees use it when talking to the boss.

Slappin Oneself

The Attention Stance

2. Legs Apart

As mentioned earlier, this is predominantly a male gesture and is like a standing Pelvic Display. The Pelvic Displayer plants both feet firmly on the ground, making a clear statement that he has no intention of leaving. It is used as a dominance signal by men because it highlights the genitals, giving the Pelvic Displayer a macho-looking attitude.

Pelvic Display

Putting their masculinity on show

Male participants at sports matches can be seen standing around with each other in this position at half time and giving their crotch a continual adjustment. These adjustments have nothing to do with itching - they allow males to highlight their masculinity and show solidarity as a team by all performing the same actions.

Cowboy Stance

The Pelvic Display is used by macho men and tough guys

3. The Foot-Forward

The body weight is shifted to one hip, which leaves the front foot pointing forward. Paintings done during the Middle Ages often show high status men standing in the Foot-Forward Position as it allowed them to display their fine hosiery, shoes and breeches.

Foot Forward Position

The Foot-Forward Position - pointing at where the mind wants to go

This a valuable clue to a person's immediate intentions, because we point our lead foot in the direction our mind would like to go and this stance looks as if the person is beginning to walk. In a group situation, we point our lead foot at the most interesting or attractive person but when we want to leave, we point our feet at the nearest exit.

4. Leg Cross

The next time you attend a meeting with men and women you will notice some groups of people standing with their arms and legs crossed. Look more closely and you'll also see that they are standing at a greater distance from each other than the customary social distance.

Standing Leg Cross

The Standing-Leg-Cross

If they are wearing coats or jackets, they are likely to be buttoned. This is how most people stand when they are among people whom they don't know well. If you interact with them you would find that one or all of them are unfamiliar with others in the group.

While open legs can show openness or dominance, crossed legs shows a closed, submissive or defensive attitude as they symbolically deny any access to the genitals.

Scissor Stance

The Scissors - 'You got a problem?'

For a woman, positions like the Scissors and the Single-Leg-Cross send two messages: one, that she intends to stay, not leave; and two, that access is denied. When a man does it, it also shows he'll stay but wants to be sure you don't 'kick him where it hurts'. Open legs display masculinity; closed legs protect masculinity. If he's with men he feels are inferior to him, the Pelvic Display feels right; if he's with superior males, however, this gesture makes him look competitive and he feels vulnerable. Studies show that people who lack confidence also take Leg Cross positions.

Open legs show male confidence; dosed legs show male reticence.

Imagine now that you notice another group of people standing with arms unfolded, palms visible, coats unbuttoned, relaxed appearance and leaning back on one leg with the other pointing towards others in the group. All are gesturing with their hands and moving in and out of each other's Personal Space. Closer investigation would reveal that these people are friends or are known personally to each other. The first group of people with the closed arms and legs may have relaxed facial expressions and conversation that sounds free and easy, but the folded arms and legs tell us that they are not as relaxed or confident with each other as they are trying to appear.

Try this: join a group where you know no one and stand with your arms and legs tightly crossed and wear a serious expression. One by one the other group members will cross their arms and legs and remain in that position until you, the stranger, leave. Walk away and watch how, one by one, the members of the group assume their original open poses once again.

Crossing the legs not only reveals negative or defensive emotions, it makes a person appear insecure and causes others to react accordingly.

Defensive, Cold or 'Just Comfortable'?

Some people will claim that they are not defensive or feeling insecure when they cross their arms or legs, but do it because they're cold. When someone wants to warm his hands he'll thrust them under his armpits rather than tucking them under the elbows, as is the case with a defensive arm-cross. Second, when a person feels cold he may use a type of body hug and when the legs are crossed they are usually straight, stiff and pressed hard against each other as opposed to the more relaxed leg posture of the defensive stance or position.

Crossed Arms and Legs

A comfortable stance or feeling a bit of a fall chill?

People who habitually cross their arms or legs prefer to say that they are cold rather than admit that they could be nervous, anxious or defensive. Others simply say they're 'comfortable'. That's probably true — when someone feels defensive or insecure, crossed arms and legs feel comfortable because it matches their emotional state.

How We Move from Closed to Open

As people begin to feel more comfortable in a group and get to know others, they move through a series of movements taking them from the defensive crossed arms and legs position to the relaxed open position. This standing 'opening-up' procedure tends to follow the same sequence everywhere.

Uncertain About Other Person
1. Crossed arms and legs indicate they are uncertain about each other or the other's point of view

Opening Up To Person
2. Increased openness and acceptance

It begins with the closed position, arms and legs crossed (image 1). As they begin to feel comfortable with each other and rapport builds, their legs uncross first and their feet are placed together in the Attention Position. Next, the arm folded on top in the arm-cross comes out and the palm is occasionally flashed when speaking but is eventually not used as a barrier. Instead, it may hold the outside of the other arm in a Single-Arm-Barrier. Both arms unfold next, and one arm gestures or may be placed on the hip or in the pocket. Finally, one person takes the Foot-Forward Position, showing acceptance of the other person (image 2).

The European Leg Cross

One leg is crossed neatly over the other, with 70% of people crossing left over right. This is the normal crossed-leg position used by European, Asian and British cultures.

European Leg Cross

The European/British Leg Cross

When a person crosses both legs and arms they have emotionally withdrawn from the conversation and it can be futile to try to be convincing when they sit like this.

Not Open to Communicating

This woman presents a challenge. The crossed arms, legs, and a sidelong glance indicate she is not particularly receptive to open communications.

In business contexts, we have observed that people sitting like this talk in shorter sentences, reject more proposals and can recall less detail of what was discussed than those who sit with their arms and legs in an open position.

The American Figure Four

This position is a seated version of a Pelvic Display as it highlights the genitals and is used by American males or any cultures that are becoming 'Americanized', such as the youth of Singapore, Japan and the Philippines. It shows that an argumentative or competitive attitude exists. Monkeys and chimps also use genital displays when they are being aggressive, because a good display can avoid the damage that could be inflicted from a physical fight. With all primates, the male with the most impressive display is seen by the others as the winner. Places like Australia and New Zealand use both European leg crossing and the Figure Four. During the Second World War, the Nazis kept a lookout for the Figure Four as anyone using it was clearly not German or had spent time in the US.

The American Figure Four

The American Figure Four

The Figure Four is still less common in Britain and Europe among older people but is now seen in diverse cultures such as Russia, Japan, Sardinia and Malta among younger generations who are addicted to American films and television and are mirroring what they see. Men who sit like this are not only perceived as being more dominant, they are also seen as relaxed and youthful. In parts of the Middle East and Asia however, the Figure Four is seen as an insult because it shows the sole of the shoe and that's the part that walks in dirt.

Women who wear jeans or pants can sometimes be seen sitting in the Figure Four position, but they usually do it only around other women, not men, as they don't want to appear too masculine or to signal sexual availability.

Studies also show that most people make most of their final decision to do something when both feet are on the ground, so the Figure Four is not conducive to asking someone to make a decision.

When the Body Closes, so Does the Mind

One time we attended a conference where the audience was split 50/50 male and female and was comprised of about 100 managers and 500 salespeople. A controversial issue was being discussed - the treatment of salespeople by corporations. A well-known speaker who was head of a sales industry association (and a salesperson) was asked to address the group. As he took the stage almost all the male managers and around 25% of the female managers took the defensive Arms-and-Legs-Crossed position, revealing how threatened they felt by what they thought he would say. Their fears were well founded. He raged about the poor quality of management and how this was a major contributing factor to the industry's staffing problems. Throughout his speech, most salespeople in the audience were either leaning forward showing interest or using evaluation gestures, but the managers held their defensive position.

When the mind closes, the body follows.

The salesperson then discussed what he believed the manager's role should be, relative to salespeople. Almost as if they were players in an orchestra who had been given a command by the orchestra leader, most of the male managers shifted to the Figure Four position. They were now mentally debating the salesperson's point of view and many later confirmed that this had been the case. We noticed that some managers had not changed their posture. Even though most had also disagreed with the speaker's views, some were unable to take the Figure Four because of physical or medical conditions such as being overweight, having leg problems or arthritis.

If you're trying to persuade someone who sits in any of these positions you should attempt to get them to uncross before continuing. If you have something to show, invite them to sit beside you or give them things to do or to hold so that they lean forward to write notes or hold brochures and samples. Offering tea or coffee also works well as it makes it hard for a person to cross their arms and legs without burning themself.

Figure Four Leg Clamp

Not only does this person have a competitive attitude, they lock the Figure Four into a permanent position using one or both hands as a clamp. This is a sign of the tough-minded, stubborn individual who rejects any opinion other than their own.

The Leg Clamp

The Leg Clamp - locking a competitive attitude into place

The Ankle Lock

The male version of the Ankle Lock is often combined with clenched fists resting on the knees or with the hands tightly gripping the arms of the chair and a seated Pelvic Display. The female version varies slightly: the knees are held together, the feet may be to one side and the hands rest side by side or one on top of the other resting on the upper legs.

Woman's Ankle Lock Man's Ankle Lock

The Ankle Lock: A woman minimizing her leg space and men taking up more space

In our professional experience we have observed that when an interviewee locks his ankles, he is mentally 'biting his lip'. The gesture shows that he is holding back a negative emotion, uncertainty or fear. The feet are usually withdrawn under the chair, showing that the person also has a withdrawn attitude. When people are involved in a conversation, they also put their feet into the conversation.

Research with lawyers showed that defendants who sat outside the courtroom just prior to a hearing were three times more likely than the plaintiffs to have their ankles tightly locked under their chairs as they tried to control their emotional state. A study of several hundred dental patients showed that 88% locked their ankles as soon as they sat in the dental chair to have work done. Patients who were only having a check-up locked their ankles 68% of the time compared to 98% who locked ankles when the dentist administered an injection.

More people lock their ankles interacting with the tax man than with the dentist.

In work with law enforcement and governmental agencies, such as the police, customs, and tax offices, most people who were being interviewed locked their ankles at the beginning of the interviews, but this was just as likely to be from fear as out of guilt.

Research with human resources professionals has uncovered that most interviewees lock their ankles at some point during an interview, indicating that they were holding back an emotion or attitude. Nierenberg and Calero found that when one party locked his ankles during a negotiation it often meant that he was holding back a valuable concession. They found that by using questioning techniques they could often encourage him to unlock his ankles and reveal the concession.

Asking positive questions about their feelings can often get others to unlock their ankles.

In the initial stages of studying the Ankle Lock, it was found that asking questions was reasonably successful in getting interviewees to relax and unlock their ankles. We discovered, however, that if an interviewer walks around to the interviewee's side of the desk and sits beside him, removing the desk as a barrier, the interviewee would often relax and unlock his ankles and the conversation would take on an open, more personal tone.

The Short Skirt Syndrome

Women who wear mini-skirts cross their legs and ankles for obvious, necessary reasons. Through years of habit, however, many older women still sit in this position, which can not only make them feel restrained, but others are likely to unconsciously read it as negative and react towards these women with caution.

Mini-skirts can give a woman the appearance that she's not approachable.

Some people will still claim they sit in the Ankle Lock position, or for that matter any negative arm and leg position, because they feel 'comfortable'. If you are in this category, remember that any arm or leg position will feel comfortable when you hold a defensive, negative or reserved attitude.

A negative gesture can increase or prolong a negative attitude, and other people will read you as being apprehensive, defensive or non-participant. practice using positive and open gestures; this will improve your self-confidence and others will perceive you in a more positive way.

The Leg Twine

This gesture is almost exclusively used by women and is a trademark of shy and timid women and part-time contortionists. The top of one foot locks around the other leg to reinforce an insecure attitude and shows she has retreated into her shell like a tortoise, despite how relaxed her upper body may appear. A warm, friendly, low-key approach is needed if you eventually hope to open this clam.

Woman's Leg Twining Woman's Leg Twining Woman's Leg Twining

Shy, timid people use the Leg Twine

Parallel-Legs

Women's legs and hips have a bone configuration allowing them to sit in this fashion which projects a powerful signal of femininity. Few men can duplicate this sitting position comfortably. Not surprisingly, around 90% of male participants in leg rating surveys voted this the most attractive female sitting position.

Parallel Crossed Legs

Men voted Parallel-Legs as their number one favorite position in women who are seated

One leg presses against the other and gives the legs a healthier, more youthful look, which appeals to men from a reproductive standpoint. This is the position taught to women in deportment and modelling classes. This position should not be confused with the woman who constantly crosses and uncrosses her legs when she's with a man she fancies - this is done to draw attention to her legs.

The High Heels Effect

Most women instinctively know the effect the wearing of high heels have on men ... and are willing to suffer the downsides of wearing 5 inch heels. The reason men find women more attractive in high heels has its basis in biology.

High heels make the legs look more toned, giving the illusion of better health and more fertility. Men don't realize it, and women may rarely think about it, but the human male is attracted to females who show signs of increased fertility. High heels also accentuate the arch in the lower back, they contract the gluteus muscles which emphasize the derrière, they tilt the pelvis forward, and lengthen the legs. All these characteristics are consistent with increase fertility - thus increased attractiveness.

High heels also make a woman's feet appear smaller, which while not a biological driver of attractiveness, is common to many cultures.

Woman in High Heels

Strutting her stuff

Put Your Right Foot Out

When we're interested in either a conversation or a person, we put one foot forward to shorten the distance between us and that person. If we are reticent or not interested, we put our feet back, usually under a chair if seated.

Man Making A Pass, Woman Undecided

He's coming on strong with One-Foot-Forward and Pelvic Display; she is undecided

The man above is trying to show interest in the woman by using typical male courtship body language: foot forward, legs apart, Pelvic Display and with his hands on his waist to try to enlarge his overall perceived size and take up more space.

She is also using typical female no-go body language: her body is facing away from him, her arms are folded, and one foot is pointed in a direction ... away. He's probably wasting his time.

Summary

Our feet tell others where we want to go and who we do or don't like. If you are a woman, avoid crossing your legs when you're sitting with businessmen unless you are wearing a dress that is below the knee-line. The sight of a woman's thighs is distracting to almost all men and detracts from her message. They'll remember who she was but won't remember much of what she had to say. Many women wear shorter dresses in business because this appearance is continually thrust at them by the media; over 90% of all female television hosts are presented with short dresses and exposed legs. This is because studies prove that male viewers will watch the program for longer, but the same studies also show that the more leg a woman shows, the less men can remember the content of what she said. The rule here is simple — for social contexts, exposed crossed legs are fine but don't do it in business. If you're a man dealing with women in business the same rule applies - keep your knees together.

Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

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