What do crossed arms mean?

Keeping your arms crossed can be a sign of many attitudes. Today we explore 8 reasons that explain this gesture.

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz on November 12, 2021.

Last update: November 12, 2021

Body language makes up around 55% of the communicative experience. What you do with your face, your posture and your arms is more or as important as what you express in words. Having your arms crossed is one of the best known signs; one that of course has multiple interpretations.

Sometimes there is no causal relationship to having your arms crossed. For example, you can maintain this posture because you are cold or because it is only more comfortable for you (your shoulders are tired, among other things). However, sometimes there is an objective reason; one that you will not always want to express consciously. Let’s look at 8 possible explanations.

8 meanings of crossed arms

Interpreting body language is something that should always be done based on context. Certainly, we cannot attribute an interpretation by isolating the crossing of the arms from the body posture, the facial gestures, the tone of voice and of course the communicative context. With this in mind we present 8 reasons why a person crosses their arms.

1. Insecurity

Someone who feels insecure in a situation will tend to clench their arms, fists, and legs as a method of defense against adverse situations.

Insecurity is perhaps the best-known interpretation of crossed arms. Indeed, crossing the arms in front of the torso is interpreted as a sign of insecurity. This can manifest itself in different contexts, among which we highlight:

  • Insecurity in the speech (the ideas or opinions that are being exposed).
  • Insecurity with respect to the place (for example, when sharing in an unfamiliar place).
  • Insecurity regarding the person with whom you speak.

These three factors can determine whether a person chooses to keep their arms crossed. It may or may not be related to low self-esteem, and even social phobia. This is not always the case, so this statement must be interpreted with care.

2. Stress and tension

The second most reasonable explanation for having your arms crossed is having high levels of tension or stress. The symptoms of stress are often discussed on a psychological or physical level, but rarely in relation to body language. However, and as the evidence indicates, it is possible to determine stress levels through behavior.

In general, stressed people are anxious or accelerated. Although each individual develops a different pattern, it is not unusual for them to choose to cross their arms during episodes of concentrated stress. They can also do it before tension or nervousness.

3. Concentration

Have you noticed that sometimes when you want to concentrate you cross your arms at the torso line? If you have not done so, pay attention to situations that demand great cognitive participation, and you will see that it is a fairly common position.

According to a study published in European Journal of Social Psychology in 2008, crossing your arms can have a positive effect on performance and persistence. This could explain why so many people display this posture when they want to concentrate. As we have already pointed out, and as we will do it a couple more times, it all depends on the context.

4. Fear

In line with what we have already exposed, crossed arms can also be a symptom of fear. In general, it is in relation to where you are, the community or the confidence you have to control the situation. It is often accompanied by a withdrawn, isolated, or explicitly fearful attitude.

Fear is a natural emotion that evolved as a method of preserving integrity. That is, you are afraid of things that the brain interprets as harmful. This could partially explain why some choose to have their arms crossed at this time: in the torso are the most important organs to protect against a threat.

5. Leadership or imposition

A characteristic fact of a leader is that he knows how, when and why to use body language to his advantage. This is useful when trying to persuade or intimidate.

Contrary to the explanations we have given, and according to the context, keeping your arms crossed may imply a sign of leadership. Close your eyes for a moment and think of a leader. Imagine that you are formally dressed, have a smile, are impeccably groomed, and convey a sense of security, confidence, and knowledge.

How did he have his arms in that mental image? Yes, it is very likely that you have imagined him with his arms crossed. When combined with other body language cues they do not translate as tension or fear; If not the opposite. Even body language can be so powerful that it will hit the paths of imposition and domination.

6. Defense or threat

An investigation published in Motivation Science in 2015 he analyzed the crossed arms postures in a group of people. He concluded that this attitude is related to a defensive social orientation. The participants, a total of 242 people, were more likely to defend themselves than attack when they assumed the crossing of their arms.

For all this, some may choose this position in the face of a threatening situation. It does not have to be a major threat that endangers life, but anything that destabilizes comfort to a greater or lesser extent.

7. Submission and docility

We have already explained to you that keeping your arms crossed is a sign of leadership, as long as it is accompanied by an attitude of trust, determination and security. When the attitude is just the opposite, it indicates a submissive or very docile personality.

Interrupted eye contact, a very low tone of voice, and a rigid posture in the company of this gesture can all point in this direction. That is, someone who is easy to manipulate, lacks their own opinions or simply prefers to follow the group before betting on their individuality.

8. Isolation

Lastly, folded arms on a person can also be a sign of isolation. Those who are very reserved, have a lonely life, have a very narrow circle of friends and do not feel comfortable in a group usually adopt this gesture as part of their personality.

Another parallel explanation to the one we have already given is that keeping your arms crossed can be a response to pain. A study published in Pain in 2011 found that crossing your arms can cause pain relief. Those who are sick, feel pain or other similar cases can manifest this behavior unconsciously.

As you can see, there is no single explanation for why people keep their arms crossed. Some of them are even contrary to each other, since everything is determined by the context. It is this, together with the personality of the individual, which allows the interpretation to be made.

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