What is Defensive Body Language?

Share your love

Defensive body language is a signal that reveals insecurity or a hostile attitude. We will explore when it happens, why, how it affects us, and some subtle means to hide it.

Hiding and Shielding

Child hiding behind her parent's leg

It’s interesting to see how our body language evolves as we grow because it changes quickly to adapt to our social environment. People learn to express the same emotions and attitudes as they did as children only with much more subtlety and self-control, especially in societies where it’s not appropriate to express feelings publicly. The defensive body language is a good example of this:

Little children who feel insecure often hide behind a piece of furniture or their mother’s skirt, seeking refuge and protection. As they mature, however, they cannot use these obvious and inappropriate means to cover their lack of confidence, so they create other artificial barriers to help them feel more secure.

Folded Arms

The most known and common gesture for self-comfort is to fold the arms. Hugging yourself protects the vulnerable area of the chest, which contains the heart and lungs. This helps us to feel in control and protected, not because we truly fear being physically assaulted.

 There are different ways to fold arms: With clenched fists.

Arms folded tightly or loosely. With hands hidden or revealed.With hands clutching the arms.With hands under the arms pits, and other variations…All of these gestures project defensiveness, but each one is on a different scale or attitude.

Naturally, the tenser the gesture – the more severe the reaction, or it can be simply a sign that this person is cold. If the arms are held loosely it may be a sign of a closed-minded attitude or rejection – “You don’t impress me, try harder”.

Arms folding with clenched fists is a display of a more aggressive and hostile stance than the usual arms folding and can serve as a warning before a physical assault. You can often see this gesture in selectors and other security personnel, the message is: “Don’t mess with us.”

What about Crossing the Legs?

Other forms of defensive body language appear in the legs or ankles. Crossing the legs is a subtler and milder way to hide insecurity. It’s much less obvious as most people tend to ignore the lower body for gestures.

Crossing the ankles can be an equivalent gesture to biting the lips – a signal that this person is holding something back, not expressing it.

Crossing the legs, though, can derive from old habits, not a defensive attitude. For example, girls are taught from an early age to keep their legs together as it’s a more “lady-like” position. As a result, if you spot a girl sitting with her legs wide apart it’s a display of a dominant or even provocative manner –”I don’t care what you think” is the message here.

The “Fig Leaf” Position

Obama and Clinton hands are crossed over the genitals

Another interesting posture is when the hands are crossed over the genitals – also called the “fig leaf” position by experts. It’s a self-comfort gesture that reveals vulnerability, as it protects another sensitive part of our body – our genitals. It’s often seen in funerals or other somber events, when people feel uneasy, but know that’s inappropriate to use the arms folding gesture.

It can also reveal an introverted, shy, or innocent personality – one that doesn’t like to display its sexuality in public. It’s the opposite gesture to other displays that emphasize the area of the crotch – like the gesture of the thumbs protruding out of the pockets or belt towards the “Important area”, to show “who’s the man”.

Subtle Defensiveness

Man holding wine glass with both arms

Now let’s see some more advanced and subtle forms of defensive body language.

People who have more awareness of their body language, such as public figures, know that folding their arms may send a message that they feel insecure or defensive. So to protect their image they try to avoid obvious gestures of discomfort. But, since we cannot fully control our body language, especially in times of stress, their insecurity is revealed by more subtle means, such as:

These are some examples of “advanced” defensive body language gestures equal to the arms folding, only they are suppressed in a clever way. Look for these signs in people who wish to look “in control” but actually are under stress.

“Correcting” or playing with the wristwatch or other accessories on the other arm. This is a self-touch gesture that also shields the body, and provides an excuse to do so. You can spot this gesture when someone is in a tight spot when he’s about to deliver a speech, for example.

Holding different items in front of the body – a book, a bag, an umbrella, the podium; you name it.

Holding a glass of drink with both hands – we don’t really need both hands to support the weight of the glass, but holding it that way creates a small zone of comfort.


Man crossing his arms while smiling

Some may say that they use a posture of defensive body language because they just feel comfortable using it, not because they feel threatened, it’s nothing personal. 

The thing is that body language reflects our inner mood subconsciously, not because we choose to display it. Meaning, that if we feel comfortable folding our arms there’s something that’s bothering us and we subconsciously protect ourselves from it – and that’s the reason we feel good in this position. Also, remember that body language interpretation is made by the receiver – folding the arms might make you feel good, but it will keep others away.

What’s the difference between being cold and being defensive in body language?

We fold our arms and legs in both cases, but it’s quite simple to distinguish between them. The main difference is in the amount of discomfort and tension displayed:

  • The hands will be stuck under the armpits, not under the elbows.
Man cross arms under armpit
  • Legs will be straight and tense, not easily rested.
Man standing still
  • The head will be down and the neck hidden.
Woman Shy
  • Other signals such as shivering, clattering teeth, and stomping feet.

Blocking Out Thoughts

When I was in security personnel training, my trainer told us to keep our hands to the sides of the body when he spoke. He knew that crossed body language was not only blocking our attitude towards him but also blocking the reception of critical information he was about to deliver.

Studies made on defensive body language discovered that it creates a negative stance towards the speaker and blocks information up to 38 % – that’s a lot of information gone missing only because we hold back. Also, the longer we stay in this position the more negative and unreceptive we would become towards the speaker.

Just remember that it goes both ways – our body language reflects and inadvertently affects our mindset at the same time.  So even if we really interested in what’s being said, a defensive posture may cause us to adopt a closed-minded and secluded position. An open body is a prelude to an open mind.

Suppose you want someone to listen to you closely and you’ve spotted the crossed-body position – Your aim should be to delicately disarm your listener from this position by engaging him somehow. Anything that will require your listener to open his body is an option – like offering him a paper to examine, for example.

Another great way to release this tension is to let your listener present his doubts and objections – Just ask him if he has any questions or concerns about what you’ve just said; let him get it out of his system, it will make him feel that you care about his concerns, and you can proceed more smoothly.

When is Defensive Body Language Good?

I don’t want to leave the impression that defensive body language is all bad and you should always avoid it. Like with all other body language signs – it reflects something we feel inside and it’s only natural that we express it. So if you’re with a group of strangers it’s normal that you won’t feel very secure and stay on guard until you know and like them better.

Another option to consider when interpreting body language is that we tend to copy the body language of others in an intuitive way.  A group of people conversing together with their arms folded can be a mutual display of unity, not an upcoming conflict between them.

But let’s move on: if your aim is to look approachable and dynamic then defensive body language will only hinder you, the opposite will serve you much better – open body language:

Share your love
Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
Articles: 787

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up and Get your Free Gift Package