The Body Language of Hand and Arm Positions

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Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks

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On this page we’re going to talk about hands, to be more specific – about where exactly do we rest them.
Does it hold any significance in terms of body language? And more importantly – does it worth your time and effort to learn and adjust it?

I’ll answer the latter first – Obsessing over where you put your hands is counterproductive. Really, it doesn’t matter that much in terms of communication.

Unless…

Unless you have some bad habits – if you habitually fold your arms or cross them over your groin, it might give the impression that you’re a closed-minded or tense person. Or even worse – it might make you feel that way! 

So the general idea here is this: if it isn’t broken – don’t try to fix it, there isn’t much room for improvement here. But if you do find that people feel uncomfortable around you, it may be the way you hold yourself that keeps others away.

Another goal I have for this article is to give some insight regarding yet another piece of the puzzle – what the different hand positions can mean, and in which context they usually appear.

Without any further ado, let’s start with:

Hands Behind the Back

hand behind back

This one is a tricky one, because it can show comfort and authority; or on the opposite – anxiety and tension, the distinction is all in the way the hands wrapped around each other.

If one hand is held easy in the palm of the other behind the back – it’s a comfortable and superior position. Just like an army instructor would walk when he’s observing his troops, He’s exposing the front because he feel secure and dominant and he uses his body to send that message to his troops.

But suppose his authority is challenged, this projection of confidence may alter to become tight and restrained. He will clutch one hand tightly around the other, as if he holds himself from lashing out.”Get a grip on yourself” is the key phrase here.

The higher the grip over the other hand (grasping the wrist, the elbow or even the arm) – the higher the amount of emotional pressure. If you push this person’s buttons too hard he’ll burst or change his posture to a defensive position – like folding his arms.

hands behind back body language

Hiding the hands behind the back can also be interpreted as deceitful and often awake suspicion. Just like a child who hides his hands if he’s caught taking something he’s not really supposed to. Adults who lie or feel embarrassed also tend to hide their hands in their pockets or keep them busy by playing with objects

Hands Rest to the Sides

This is  the most “basic” and natural position you can picture: the hands rest to the sides of the body with ease.

good vs bad standing posture


It might look somewhat “boring” but when combined with the chest held up, shoulders rest in straight line and  the head kept in natural position – it’s sends a confident and powerful message – simply because it lacks any negative and nervous signals.

This posture appeals to us because we like to see things symmetrical. It’s pure and simple for “I feel good and secure in my position”.

but..

It’s quite ironic to call it the natural posture because you rarely see anyone stands this way. We tend to slouch or to lean on stuff, we seldom find peace by simply resting our hands without doing or holding something.

But why?

Because when we’re in a public zone with a lot of strangers we don’t feel secure enough.

Because negative thoughts and worries cause irritation we must release or pacify through touch or by playing with objects.

Because we subconsciously try to protect ourselves from negative events.

In short – we rarely possess real comfort and relaxation when in public or during work. Our mind works all the time, and the body projects such activity outside.

good vs poor sitting posture

If you try to stand in such composed posture in a middle of a busy street, you may find yourself feeling very awkward – You’ll instantly become very self-conscious to your body and your hands position. Instinctively you’ll want to grab something or to fold your arms.

Instead try to relax and let the hands fall to the sides of your body with the palms turned towards you. You can imagine holding imaginary bags in your hands to help you keep them down. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy getting used to it, but with some practice you can become less conscious about it and more relaxed in turn.

So.. in terms of interpreting body language, what can we tell if we observe such a “plain” posture?

Not much really, except the fact that they feel quite OK about themselves at the moment.

With this note, let’s move to next part:

Ah, it’s time for the second dish of hand positions. This time we’ll talk how hands can create barriers and expose our insecurities.

We’ll start with the most known display and it’s variations:

Hands behind the Back

This hand position is part of the defensive body language.

Folding the arms creates a shield that protects us from either physical or emotional threat. So it keeps you “safe” but in the same time blocks communication with others.

And as we know, blocking communication is rarely a good thing for building friendly relationships. You inadvertently display hostile or suspicious attitude towards others and their ideas. Yes, even if you didn’t mean to.

There are different variations to crossing the arms, and each reflects a somewhat different attitude, such as:

  • Folding the arms with clenched fists is a defensive yet aggressive hand position – protecting with the crossed arms and ready to strike with the fists.
  • If the grip is very tight – it’s a sign for high self restraint, tension or it may be a sign that this person is freezing.
  • A casual arms fold, where one arm “pops out” casually to gesticulate is part of the “opening up” process, it’s only a temporary barrier that will wear off when the ice completely breaks.
  • Crossing only one arm over the body is a more submissive and feminine gesture. It’s not threatening or aggressive, but still shows recessive traits.

Folding the arms is also a way to show a not-negotiating and firm attitude. Bouncers, for example, adopt this posture to show that there’s no room to argue with them, they’re not going to budge. Closed body language in that case is equivalent to a closed mind.

If you habitually cross your arms remember that while this gesture may be just comfortable for you, it still sends negative image to others and should be generally avoided.

Hands over Groin

covering genitals 1

People will adopt this hands position when feeling insecure and nervous – protecting their femininity or masculinity center zone.It’s similar to the arms folding form in the way that they both display defensive attitude, but this posture is less aggressive and more vulnerable.It also sends a message of submissiveness, shyness and perhaps innocence. Don’t hide behind shields if you want to appear assertive and decisive.

Clasping Hands

Clasping Hands

Clasping both hands often misinterpreted as confidence or authority, while in fact it reveals something entirely different – frustration and stress.

Remember when we talked about the hand-clasping-hand in behind the back position?

Just like then, clasping the hands is a form of self-restraint, holding oneself in place to suppress the tension inside.

There is a correlation between the position of the clasp and the amount of tension. If the hands lay on the table then the tension is milder contrary to clasping the hands in front of the face or over the head.

If for example, you stop to have a small talk with someone in work but they keep clasping their hands in front of them you can assume that’s not really into talking with you right now; You may interrupting them during something and they aren’t interested in talking with you – it’s their way of barring you out.

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