A Call to Arms. Deciphering the Language of Limbs

A Guide to Conducting Research in the Age of Covid-19: Part 5

By David M. Schneer

3-Minute Read

You open your front door to retrieve the newspaper at daybreak, and as you look down at the welcome mat where it is usually waiting—you sense something hurtling at high speed toward your head. Without thinking, your arms raise like Shaq and block it. Thwack! The tardy paperboy just threw a Hail Mary right at your noggin. Hmm…maybe it’s time to go digital.

But I digress. Despite being our external defenders, arms can carry on quite a conversation too. In our last blog, “Talking Torsos and Other Noisy Body Parts: How to Decipher Body Language Below the Neck”, we provided 10 tips on how decode Torso Talk. Today, limbs have the limelight.

Joe Navarro indicates that there is much to detect when you observe arms. Among them:

  1. STIFF ARMS: A clear sign of tension.
  2. CROSSED ARMS: Not necessarily blocking behavior, but often a form of pacification.
  3. CROSSED ARMS WITH PRESSED FINGERS: Sometimes people grip and squeeze their upper arms in an attempt to deal with stress.
  4. PARTIAL ARM BARRIER: Grabbing one arm and crossing the torso is either an attempt to maintain distance or a sign of insecurity.
  5. ARMPIT EXPOSURE: A sign of comfort (could be risky behavior in balmy environs).
  6. ARM SPREADING: Bosses are famous for placing their arms on or over the arms of their chair – a territorial display and sign of confidence.
  7. NODDING WITH CROSSED ARMS: An attempt to curb their enthusiasm. This is not necessarily bad news; this person just needs more time to cogitate.
  8. ELATION/TRIUMPH DISPLAYS: When their teams score, fans instinctively raise their hands in a gravity-defying display of elation. We don’t need to be told to do this. Arms up in the air is a good sign.[2]
  9. CROSSED ARMS/HEAD LEANED BACK: If you see someone respond to your proposal in a closed body position with folded arms and their head leaned back, this means no.
  10. ELBOWS ON THE ARMS OF A CHAIR: Placing one’s elbows on or over the arms of a chair is another sign of comfort.

Now that the arms have articulated, their Southern cousins want in on the act.  You guessed it. Those hammy hands. Stay tuned for our next blog on what a person’s hands can convey.

As a body language master and qualitative moderator, I can tell you that in-person interviewing yields significantly more information than remote methods for those who can decipher the cues, but phone and video remain powerful alternatives for quickly collecting many types of data—especially now.

Download our more in-depth comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of remote interviewing.

Most Communication is Nonverbal. Are you fluent?

[2]Joe Navarro. “The Dictionary of Body Language.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-dictionary-of-body-language/id1281489160