A recent posting on Olivia Mitchell’s Speaking about Presenting blog led to a lively exchange about the absurdly overstated claims that 93% of communication is non-verbal (see also HERE for a cartoon that neatly sums it up).
The chapter on ‘Physical Facts and Fiction’ in my book Lend Me Your Ears was aimed at debunking some of these modern myths, and I’d like to know what others think about the claim that folding your arms means that you’re being defensive.
It’s one that prompted me years ago to start asking people sitting in lectures with their arms folded whether they were feeling defensive.
The immediate and invariable reaction is that they quickly unfold their arms – because they too know exactly what I’m referring to and they too 'know' that it's alleged to be a sign of defensiveness.
The commonest response is that they’re feeling quite comfortable, thank you very much.
Sometimes they point out that there are no armrests on the chairs; occasionally they complain that the room is a bit cold.
But never once has anyone among the hundreds of people I’ve now put he question to ever said that they felt on the defensive.
The body language ‘experts’ would no doubt tell me that I’m a naïve idiot for being taken in by them, that I’m failing to read what their non-verbal behaviour is really telling me, that they’re covering up what their real feelings are in order not to offend me, etc, etc.
My problem is that I see no reason not believing them. Nor, until someone provides a convincing demonstration to the contrary, do I believe that these self-appointed ‘experts’ have any evidence to support their position, or to prove that people like me have got it so wrong.
But, and this is perhaps the most depressing thing of all, I do nontheless advise people not to fold their arms when speaking, whether in a conversation, presentation, job interview or anywhere lese where they’re hoping to make a good impression – not because I believe that folded arms signals defensiveness, but because I know that there’s almost certain to be someone in the audience who’s been misled into believing that it does.