Body language, non-verbal communication and the myth about folded arms and defensiveness

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 na├»ve 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.


Bert Decker said...

Nice Max, but actually I think the folding of arms is not so much defensiveness, as it is passive. When listening it is fine (or OK anyway), for you are at rest, listening.
But when speaking you are active, advocating, communicating - not the time for passive. Arms folded then is a nervous 'closed' habit that people have, and not very effective.

When speaking we want to be 'open', not 'closed'. When listening, different posture.

Love your blog...


Lisa Braithwaite said...

Great post, Max! I've written some similar posts about audiences' body language; there are a lot of myths out there for us to debunk! Here's one of my posts:

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Ciel said...

Yes. I agree with you. Besides, it is knwon that we should read signs in clusters. So may be that sign alone may not mean defensiveness at all. Great blog.

Put your knowledge into practice.
I propose that you try to identify the host from the guest in this popular commercial. In the male group of friends. Merely by body language: