Keep ’em at Arm’s Length

Imagine the last argument you had. You were convinced of your position. There’s no way the other person was right.

They thought the same about your argument, of course.

I’d be willing to bet at least one of you crossed your arms in front of yourself to block the very ideas being spoken.

Arms are one of our most expressive forms of communication. They’re used to build trust and rapport, as we’ll see. They’re used for defense. They’re used to communicate effectively at work.

Imagine the college professor, using her arms to focus our attention to different parts of her presentation. Lawyers use their arms to emphasize their points. Traffic cops use their arms to direct the flow around them.

We are naturally inclined to watch people’s arms — so much that illusionists and pickpockets take advantage of this to misdirect our attention.

In addition to emphasizing our speech, sudden changes in our arms also communicate our limbic reactions to our surroundings.

Image "Put your hands up in the air" by Thomas Leuthard, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Image “Put your hands up in the air” by Thomas Leuthard, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

This post covers Chapter 5 of Joe Navarro’s interesting book, What Every BODY Is Saying, the current PRL book selection.

When we’re happy, our arms move freely. Arms are great at displaying gravity-defying behaviors. When a baseball player hits a home run, the team all raise their hands in celebration.

When we’re unhappy or tired, our arms hang at our sides. Our shoulders slump with defeat. Consider the losing team walking back to their bus, arms hanging heavy.

When we feel threatened or uncomfortable, our arms withdraw. It’s an attempt to make ourselves as small as possible, hoping to not be noticed. We cross them in front of us for protection, or we hold our arms, frozen, at our sides.

When someone puts their arms behind their back, they’re withholding their touch and signalling that they’re higher-status. You’ll need to get your oxytocin elsewhere.

Arms on the hips, standing with feet apart, is a territorial display. This stance takes up more space and appears authoritative. Police officers often stand like this.

Placing your hands behind your head is common example of taking up territory to display confidence or dominance. I frequently see this in meetings. I also see people spreading their arms across a desk or the backs of chairs, attempting to occupy more territory.

Arms are often decorated. Jewelry, tattoos, and patches on a jacket are all non-verbal signals that deserve your attention. Scars and suntans help tell a story. Depending on the situation, you may want to cover your own tattoos to avoid negative associations.

Territorial display and affection, all in one! "Love in the Afternoon" by Marc Falardeau, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Territorial display and affection, all in one! “Love in the Afternoon” by Marc Falardeau, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

Finally, touching and contact. People often hug to display comfort and affection, more so in some cultures than others. They open their arms wide, showing their vulnerable selves and defying gravity. Lightly touching someone’s arm is a good way to increase comfort between two people, releasing the feel-good oxytocin to the brain and helping to build rapport between two people.

Keep an eye out for sudden changes in arm behavior. Have you seen any recent winners raise their arms up? Any defensive coworkers crossing their arms to protect their bodies? Think about it for a moment. Leave a comment below!