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

Chapter 4


Protective Soccer Players
Holding their hands over their genitals makes men feel more secure when they feel threatened

Arm Barrier Signals

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. During our teens, we learned to make the crossed-arms gesture less obvious by relaxing our arms a little and combining the gesture with crossed legs.

As we grow older, the arm-crossing gesture can evolve to the point where we try to make it even 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.

Why Crossed Arms Can be Detrimental

Research conducted into the Crossed-Arms gesture showed interesting results. A group of volunteers was asked to attend a series of lectures and each student was instructed to keep his legs uncrossed, arms unfolded and to take a casual, relaxed sitting position. At the end of the lectures each student was tested on his retention and knowledge of the subject matter and his attitude towards the lecturer was tracked. A second group of volunteers was put through the same process, but these volunteers were instructed to keep their arms tightly folded across their chests throughout the lectures. The results showed that the group with the folded arms had learned and retained 40% less than the group who kept its arms unfolded. The second group also had a more critical opinion of the lectures and of the lecturer.

When you fold your arms your credibility is substantially reduced.

This type of test was conducted years ago with 1500 seminar attendees during a number of different lectures and produced almost identical results. These tests revealed that, when a listener folds his arms, not only does he have more negative thoughts about the speaker, but he is also paying less attention to what is being said. It is for this reason that training centers should have chairs with arms to allow the attendees to leave their arms uncrossed.

Yes...But I'm Just 'Comfortable'

Some people claim that they habitually cross their arms because it's comfortable. Any gesture will feel comfortable when you have the corresponding attitude; that is, if you have a negative, defensive or nervous attitude, folded arms will feel comfortable. If you're having fun with your friends, folded arms will feel wrong.

Remember that with all body language, the meaning of the message is also in the receiver, as well as the sender. You may feel 'comfortable' with your arms crossed and your back and neck stiffened, but studies have shown that others' reactions to these gestures is negative. So the lesson here is clear - avoid crossing your arms under any circumstances unless your intention is to show others you don't agree or don't want to participate.

You may feel arm-crossing is simply comfortable but others will think you're not approachable.

Gender Differences

Men's arms rotate slightly inwards while women's arms rotate slightly outwards. These rotation differences have enabled men to aim and throw more accurately, while women's splayed elbows give them a wider, more stable position for carrying babies. One interesting difference is that women tend to keep their arms more open when they are around men they find attractive and are likely to fold their arms across their breasts around aggressive or unattractive men.

Men's Inward Rotating ArmsWomen's Outward Rotating Arms
Inward rotating arms allow men to throw accurately; women's outward rotating arms make for better carrying


Both arms are folded together across the chest as an attempt to put a barrier between the person and someone or something they don't like. There are many arm-folding positions and we'll discuss here the most common ones you're likely to see. Crossed-Arms-on-Chest is universal and is decoded with the same defensive or negative meaning almost everywhere. It is commonly seen among strangers in public meetings, in queues or cafeteria lines, elevators or anywhere that people feel uncertain or insecure.

President Trump With Arms Crossed
Crossed-Arms-on-Chest: President Trump is not coming out and you're not coming in

We attended a meeting of our local city council where a debate was held on the cutting down of trees by developers. The developers sat to one side of the room and their opponents, the environmentalists, sat on the other. About half those attending sat with their arms crossed at the opening of the meeting and this increased to 90% of the environmentalists when the developers addressed the audience, and almost 100% of the developers did it when the environmentalists spoke. This shows how most people will take an arms-folded position when they disagree with what they're hearing. Many speakers fail to communicate their message to their audience because they have not seen the crossed-arms position of their listeners. Experienced speakers know that this gesture means a good 'ice breaker' is needed to move their audience into a more receptive position that will change their attitude from negative to positive.

When you see someone take the arms-crossed position, it's reasonable to assume that you may have said something with which they disagree. It may be pointless continuing your line of argument even though the person could be verbally agreeing with you. The fact is that body language is more honest than words.

As long as someone holds an arms-folded position, a negative attitude will persist.

Your objective should be to try to work out why they crossed their arms and to try to move the person into a more receptive position. The attitude causes the gesture to occur and maintaining the gesture forces the attitude to remain.


A simple but effective way of breaking the arms-folded position is to give the listener something to hold or give them something to do. Giving them a pen, book, brochure, sample written test forces them to unfold their arms and lean forward. This moves them into a more open position and, therefore, a more open attitude. Asking someone to lean forward to look at a visual presentation can also be an effective means of opening the arms-folded position. You could also lean forward with your palms up and say, 'I can see you have a question...what would you like to know?' or, 'What's your opinion?' You then sit or lean back to indicate that it's their turn to speak. By using your palms you non-verbally tell them that you would like them to be open and honest because that's what you're being.

Why am I holding all these pens, pencils and brochures?' asked the customer, who began to look like a decorated Xmas tree. I'll come to that later,' said the negotiator.

Salespeople and negotiators are often taught that it's usually safer not to proceed with the presentation of a product or idea until the prospect's reason for folding his arms is uncovered. More often than not, buyers have hidden objections that most salespeople never discover because they missed seeing the buyer's arms-folded cluster, signalling that he was feeling negative about something.

Reinforced Arm-Crossing

If a person has clenched fists as well as a full arm-cross, this cluster, called Fists-Clenched-Arm-Crossed, shows hostility as well as defensiveness. If it's combined with a tight-lipped smile or clenched teeth and red face, a verbal or even physical attack could happen. A conciliatory approach is needed to discover what is causing it if the reason is not already apparent. This person has an aggressive, attacking attitude.

Clenched Fists
Fists-Clenched-Arms-Crossed shows a hostile attitude exists


The Double-Arm-Grip is characterized by the person's hands tightly gripping their upper arms to reinforce themselves and avoid exposure of the front of the body. Sometimes the arms can be gripped so tight that the fingers and knuckles can turn white as blood circulation is cut off. It's a person's way of comforting himself with a form of self-hugging. Arm-gripping is commonly seen in doctors' and dentists' waiting rooms or with first-time air travellers who are waiting for lift-off. It shows a negative, restrained attitude.

Double Arm Grip
The Double-Arm-Grip: feeling insecure and not buying what you're saying

In a courtroom, the claimant may be seen using a Fists-Clenched-Arm-Crossed pose while the defendant may have taken the Double-Arm-Grip position.

The Boss vs The Staff

Status can influence arm-folding gestures. A superior type can make his superiority felt by not folding his arms, saying, in effect, 'I'm not afraid, so I'll keep my body open and vulnerable.' Let's say, for example, that at a company social function, the general manager is introduced to several new employees. playing greeted them with a Palm-Down handshake, he stands back from them - a yard away (1 meter) - with his hands by his side or behind his back in the Prince Philip Palm-in-Palm position (superiority), or with one or both hands in his pocket (non-involvement). He rarely folds his arms across his chest so as not to show the slightest hint of nervousness.

Conversely, after shaking hands with the boss, the new employees may take full or partial arm-crossing positions because of their apprehension about being in the presence of the company's top person. Both the general manager and the new employees feel comfortable with their respective gesture clusters as each is signalling his status, relative to the other. But what happens when the general manager meets a young, up-and-coming male who is also a superior type and who may even signal that he is as important as the general manager? The likely outcome is that, after the two give each other a dominant handshake, the younger executive may take an arm-fold gesture with both thumbs pointing upwards.

Thumbs Up
Thumbs-Up: defensive, but he still thinks he's pretty cool

This gesture has the arms-crossed plus both thumbs up showing that he's feeling 'cool' and in control. As he talks, he gestures with his thumbs to emphasize points he is making, As we've already discussed, the thumbs-up gesture is a way of showing others we have a self-confident attitude and the folded arms still gives a feeling of protection.

Someone who is feeling defensive but also submissive at the same time will sit in a symmetrical position, which means one side of their body is a perfect mirror of the other. They display tense muscle tone and look as if they expect to be attacked whereas a person who is feeling defensive and dominant wil take an asymmetrical pose, that is, one side of the body doesn't mirror the other.

Getting the Thumbs-Up

When you're presenting your case to someone and the Thumbs-Up-Arms-Crossed appears towards the end of your presentation and is clustered with other positive gestures, it signals you can move comfortably into asking the person for a commitment. On the other hand, if at the close of the presentation the other person takes the Fists-Clenched-Arms-Crossed position and has a poker face, you can be inviting trouble by attempting to get a 'yes'. It would be better to ask questions to try to uncover the person's objections. When someone says 'no' to a proposal, it can become difficult to change their mind without looking as if you're aggressive. The ability to read body language allows you to 'see' a negative decision before it is verbalized and gives you time to take an alternative course of action.

When you can see a 'no' before it's said, you can try a different approach.

People carrying weapons or wearing armor seldom use arm gestures because their weapon or armour provides sufficient body protection. Police officers who wear guns, for example, rarely cross their arms unless they are standing guard and they normally use the fist-clenched position to communicate clearly that nobody is permitted to pass where they are standing.

Hugging Yourself

When we were children our parents or carers embraced or hugged us when we faced distressing or tense circumstances. As adults, we often attempt to recreate those same comforting feelings when we find ourselves in stressful situations. Rather than take a full arm-cross gesture, which can tell everyone we are fearful, women often substitute a subtler version - a Partial Arm-Cross, where one arm swings across the body to hold or touch the other arm to form the barrier and it looks as if she is hugging herself. Partial arm barriers are often seen in meetings where a person may be a stranger to the group or is lacking in self-confidence. Any woman taking this position in a tense situation will usually claim she is just being 'comfortable'.

Holding On
Holding herself like her mother held her when she was a child

Men use a partial arm barrier known as Holding-Hands-With Yourself: it's commonly used by men who stand in front of a crowd to receive an award or give a speech. Also known as the Broken Zipper Position it makes a man feel secure because he can protect his 'crown jewels' and can avoid the consequences of receiving a nasty frontal blow.

The Broken Zipper Position

Broken Zipper Position
The Broken Zipper Position

It's the same position men take in a line at a soup kitchen or to receive social security benefits and reveals their dejected, vulnerable feelings. It recreates the feeling of having someone else hold your hand. Adolf Hitler used it regularly in public to mask the sexual inadequacy he felt because of having only one testicle.

It's possible that evolution shortened men's arms to allow them to take this protective position because when our closest primate cousins, the chimpanzees, assume the same position their hands cross at their knees.

Hitler Hands CrossedHitler Holding Hat
Humans make a point of hiding the areas they think are their weakest or most vulnerable

How the Rich and Famous Reveal their Insecurity

People who are continually exposed to others, such as royalty, politicians, television personalities and movie stars, usually don't want their audiences to detect that they are nervous or unsure of themselves. They prefer to project a cool, calm, controlled attitude when on display, but their anxiety or apprehension leaks out in disguised forms of arm-crossing. As in all arm-cross gestures, one arm swings across in front of the body towards the other arm but instead of the arms crossing, one hand touches or holds on to a handbag, bracelet, watch,' shirt cuff or object on or near their other arm. Once again the barrier is formed and the secure feeling is achieved.

Nervous Guy
Famous people are just as nervous in public as the rest of us

Men wearing cufflinks are often seen adjusting them as they cross a room or dance floor where they are in full view of others. The Cuff-Link-Adjust is the trademark of men like England's Prince Charles, who uses it to give himself a feeling of security any time he walks across an open space in full view of everyone.

Will Ferrell Cuff Link
Will Ferrell's Cuff-Link adjustment. Could THIS guy be revealing his insecurities?

An anxious or self-conscious man will also be seen adjusting the band on his watch, checking the contents of his wallet clasping or rubbing his hands together, playing with a button on his cuff or using any gesture that lets his arms cross in front of his body. A favorite of insecure businessmen is walking into a business meeting holding a briefcase or folder in front of the body. To the trained observer, these gestures are a giveaway because they achieve no real purpose except as an attempt to disguise nervousness. A good place to observe these gestures is anywhere that people walk past a group of onlookers, such as a man who crosses the dance floor to ask a woman to dance or someone who crosses a stage to receive an award.

Women's use of disguised arm barriers is less noticeable than men's because women can grasp onto things like handbags or purses if they become self-conscious or unsure of themselves. Princess Anne, part of the British royal family, regularly clutches a bunch of flowers when walking in public and the Flowers/Handbag Clutch is Queen Elizabeth's favorite. It's unlikely that she would be carrying lipstick, make-up, credit cards and theatre tickets in her handbag. Instead, she uses it as a type of security blanket when necessary and as a means of sending subtle messages to assistants.

Ashley Greene
Handbag used to form a barrier

One of the most common versions of creating a subtle barrier is to hold a glass or cup with two hands. You need only one hand to hold a glass but two hands allows the insecure person to form an almost unnoticeable arm barrier. These types of gestures are used by almost everyone and few of us are aware that we're doing them.

Woman Grasping Flowers
Flower grasping shows self-consciousness

The Coffee Cup Barrier

Offering a refreshment during a negotiation is an excellent strategy for gauging how the other person is receiving your offer. Where a person places their cup immediately after they take a drink is a strong indicator of whether or not they are convinced or open to what you are saying. Someone who is feeling hesitant, unsure or negative about what they are hearing will place their cup to the opposite side of their body to form the equivalent of a single arm barrier. "When they are accepting of what they are hearing they place the cup to the side of their body showing an open or accepting attitude.

Woman's Arm Barrier
The arm barrier says 'no'

Open Upper Body Posture
This posture is welcoming and open to your ideas

Sitting with your elbows on the armrest of a chair is a position of power and conveys a strong, upright image. Humble defeated individuals let the arms drop inside the arms of the chair, so avoid this at all times unless your goal is to appear defeated.

The Power of Touch

Touching a person with your left hand while shaking hands with your right hand can create a powerful result.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted an experiment that became known as 'The Phone Booth Test'. They placed a coin on the ledge of a telephone booth then hid behind a tree and waited for an unsuspecting subject to walk in and find it. When this happened, one of the researchers would approach the subject and say, 'Did you happen to see my coin in that phone booth? I need it to make another call.' Only 23% of the subjects admitted they had found it and gave it back.

In the second part of the study, the coin was again placed in the phone booth but when the researchers approached the people who took it, they touched them lightly on the elbow for not longer than three seconds and inquired about the coin. This time, 68% admitted to having the coin, looked embarrassed and said things like, 'I was looking around to try to see who owned it...'

Skillful elbow-touching can give you up to three times the chance of getting what you want

There are three reasons this technique works: first, the elbow is considered a public space and is far away from intimate parts of the body; second, touching a stranger is not considered acceptable in most countries so it creates an impression; and third, a light, three-second elbow touch creates a momentary bond between two people. This type of experiment was replicated for a TV show, with dollars or Euros left at a coffee bar. The return rate for the money varied by culture depending on what the normal touch frequency was in a particular area. Using elbow touching, the money was returned at a higher frequency, above 80% of the time by Germans and 70% by English, a middling 50% of the time by the French, and on the low side by 20% of Italians. This result shows how the elbow touch is more successful in places where frequent touching is not the cultural norm (Germany and Britain).

Overall, our observation and analysis found that women were four times more likely to touch another woman than was a man to touch another man. In many places, touching a stranger above or below the elbow did not produce the same positive results as with directly touching the elbow and often received negative reactions. Touching for more than three seconds also received a negative response, with the person suddenly looking down at your hand to see what you are doing.

Touch their Hand Too

Another study involved librarians who, as they issued a book to a borrower, lightly brushed the hand of the person borrowing the book. Outside the library, the borrowers were surveyed and asked questions about their impressions of the service the library offered. Those who had been touched responded more favorably to all questions asked and were more likely to recall the name of the librarian. Studies conducted in supermarkets where customers are lightly touched on the hand when they received their change show similar positive customer reactions. The same experiment has also been conducted with waitresses who derive much of their income from customer tips. The elbow-and-hand touching waitresses made 40% more tips from male diners than non-touching waitresses and male waiters increased their earnings by 20%+ regardless of which sex they touched.

When you next meet someone new and you shake hands, extend your left arm, give a light touch on their elbow or hand as you shake, repeat their name to confirm you heard it correctly, and watch their reaction. Not only does it make that person feel important, it lets you remember their name through repetition.

Elbow - and hand-touching - when done discreetly - grabs attention, reinforces a comment, underlines a concept, increases your influence over others, makes you more memorable and creates positive impressions on everyone.


It makes no difference how you look at it, any crossing of the arms in front of the body is seen as negative and the message is as much in the mind of the receiver as the sender. Even if you fold your arms because, for example, you have a backache, an observer will still unconsciously perceive you as closed to their ideas. Make a decision now to practice not crossing your arms and in the following sections there are recommendations for projecting a more positive, confident image.

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