Arms are like the conductor of an orchestra. Every movement you make sends powerful signals to others in your environment.

What are your arms saying about you?

  • Are your arms normally wide and open, taking up a lot of space?
  • Are they close to your body, with tiny movements?
  • Are they relaxed and neutral?

This is everything you ever wanted to know about arm body language.

Basically, if every person read this guide, they would be a body language wizard.

Are you gifted at reading body language? Try our body language quiz to see how your skills match up!

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How Do You Read Arms?

Not all arms are equal.

Our arms are dynamic. They can be wide and expansive when we’re feeling good, but in the very next moment become stiff and close if we’re scared.

Think of how a person’s arms might look if they were in the following situations:

  • celebrating the win of a competitive sports game
  • coming home after a long, dreadful day at work
  • during a heated argument with the landlady

Our arms are dynamic and can indicate our mood in the current situation.

Arms can be broken down into 2 main spectrums:

  1. The Expansive Scale
The Expansive Scale

The most important spectrum, the Expansive Scale, indicates how much our arms expand from our bodies.

Close arms are glued to our sides and refuse to move away from our body.

Expansive arms take up a lot of space and shout, “Look at me!”

  1. The Flowometer

The 2nd spectrum, the Flowometer, indicates the amount of “flow” arm movements have.

In a 2013 study of poker players, researchers found that it’s not about the poker face; it’s about the poker arms that give away a player’s hand:

  • Participants guessed poker players’ hands by observing their gestures alone.
  • They did better than guessing 50/50. But what gave it away?

Poker players who had a good hand moved their arms more smoothly. Those who had a bad hand or were simply bluffing had more awkward arm movements.

Stiff arms are a dead giveaway by their creak, squeak, and jerky robotic movements.

Smooth arms are flowy and have a natural “rhythm” to them.

The Expansive scale: 1

Let’s kick off with perhaps the most controversial body language cue of them all: crossed arms.

But first, can you tell which person is smiling by looking at the 2 images below?

Woan and man standing with crossed arms

Did you guess the man? If so, you’re correct!

By the way, that smiling man is a friend of mine named Brian Dean! And the truth is, crossing arms does NOT always mean someone is angry or being defensive.

In fact, I found there are 6 meanings to crossed arms, ranging from comfort to extreme anger.

Comfort: Many people cross their arms because it’s comfortable, so be careful to analyze this cue for a hidden emotion that’s not there. You might notice this, for example, if someone is sitting in a parked car and wants to relax their arms.

It also makes us feel really, really warm… so you’ll often see crossed arms during cold winter days!

Concentration: We also cross our arms when stumped by a difficult task. In an experiment by Rochester University, 41 students were asked to do 1 of 2 things while solving a difficult anagram1.

  • cross their arms, or
  • leave their arms on their thighs.

The interesting part?

Students who crossed their arms performed better and persisted for 8 seconds longer.

It turns out that crossing arms activates an unconscious ambition to succeed and increases perseverance!

Defensiveness: If you notice someone immediately cross their arms during a conversation, they might feel personally attacked and defensive about what you just said. If you notice their thumbs poking up, this might mean they are feeling “cool” and in control, but still feeling defensive2.

Anger: When we are upset or disappointed, we will cross our arms to literally restrain ourselves3.When feeling hostile or defensive, you may even notice clenched fists2.Combined with a tight-lipped smile, clenched teeth, or a red face, this is a good indicator of aggressive body language.

Anxiety: Crossed arms happen much more often in public than when relaxing alone3. That’s why if you go to any busy doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room, chances are you’ll see crossed arms. You can also see it in first-time air travelers who are scared out of their minds from leaving the ground (I don’t blame you!)2.

You’ll also notice this right before athletes go into competition or when they’re feeling outmatched. Here’s an example where a tug-of-war team faces off against four strongmen. You can see how most of the team crosses their arms—and who wouldn’t!? These strongmen are huge!

Criticalness: Have you ever watched an episode of Masterchef? Or American Idol? In any “contestant” show, the job of the judges is to be the most critical person in the room.

And this is where you might notice the arm cross. Crossing naturally raises your “suspicion” barriers and makes you more critical of what’s in front of you.

You’ll often see Gordon Ramsay doing the one-arm cross (more on that below) and Joe Bastianich doing the classic two-arm:

Jennifer Lopez does it while concentrating on the performance:

In groundbreaking research conducted in the US2.

  • Students were asked to attend lectures, and each student was instructed to keep their legs uncrossed, arms unfolded, and take a relaxed/casual sitting position.
  • A 2nd group also attended the same lectures, but were told to keep their arms tightly folded across their chest the entire time.

The result? The group with folded arms learned and retained 38% less than the group with unfolded arms! The arm-folders also had a more critical opinion of the lectures and lecturer.

Cross your arms to turn on your “judging” mode and increase your critical thinking.

Pro Tip: Break the crossed-arms gesture by giving the person something to do with their hands or something to hold onto —a pen, a book, a brochure, a test–or ask them to lean forward to look at a presentation.

How Do You Cross?

Here’s a simple self-test you can do right now: cross your arms. Now let me take a guess… Did you cross your left arm over your right one?

Research has found that 7 out of 10 people cross their left arm over their right arm1. This implies that this gesture might be genetic, with the less dominant left arm protecting the more useful right one. Even if you try crossing your arms the other way, you might be surprised that it feels completely wrong!

And we all cross differently. Take a look at the chart below and see a handful of the quirky ways we tend to cross our arms!

The body language of arms crossed in different ways
The key to look for is in the upper arms. If the other person keeps their upper arms close to their body, only extending their arms out at the elbows, this signals that they’re holding back on their hugNavarro. They may be welcoming you, but they’re likely not particularly excited to meet you.

Watch out for the half-hug the next time you hug someone!

The key to look for is in the upper arms. If the other person keeps their upper arms close to their body, only extending their arms out at the elbows, this signals that they’re holding back on their hug1The key to look for is in the upper arms. If the other person keeps their upper arms close to their body, only extending their arms out at the elbows, this signals that they’re holding back on their hug

Crossed Arms (Disguised) Body Language Cue

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Crossed Arms (Disguised)

The Expansive scale: 1

When we get older, we get smarter about crossing our arms. Most of us instinctively know that crossed arms equals bad, so we look for other ways to “secretly” cross our arms4.You can find the disguised crossed-arms gesture in these ways2.

  • Adjusting a cufflink on the opposite arm. This is a signature move of Prince Charles—he even does it while being shot at during an attempted assassination!
  • Holding tightly to a purse or briefcase in front of the body:
Rihanna walking through a crowd as she holds her micro purse in front of her. with her arms corssed
Rihanna walking through a crowd as she holds her micro purse in front of her. (Source)
  • During the first few days of class when students are feeling especially nervous (I certainly remember doing this!):
Nervous Schoolgirl holding her book with her arms corssed
  • Playing around with a watch, ring, or bracelet:
Jordan Peterson spinning his ring as he gives a speech on stage
Jordan Peterson spinning his ring as he gives a speech on stage. (Source)
  • Holding a glass with 2 hands:
Sean Connery holding a glass in his hands
Sean Connery holding a glass in his hands (Source)
One Arm Cross Body Language Cue

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One Arm Crossed

Here’s another variation of the arm cross, but with one arm instead of two. This is how I used to stand—one arm around my belly and one hand gesturing! It signals nervousness but feels oh-so-good and safe.

Navarro calls this the “one arm self-hug.”

Remember the Lance Armstrong scandal years ago? You can see this gesture in action during an interview with him (timestamp 7:50).

  • The interviewer asks him if he remembers the first time he took a performance-enhancing drug.
  • Armstrong responds with a cluster of nervous signals—a small, nervous laugh, gasping for air, stuttering, gesturing his hands while trying to “grasp” words, and immediately crossing his arms.
  • He continues with the one arm self-hug, using hand gestures with one arm only.

This signals he is still closed off and feels defensive talking about his drug use even after all these years.

Arm touching comes in many forms—massaging, scratching, or resting the hand on the arm.

What it Means: Any time someone touches their arms, it might signal one of the following:

  • insecurity
  • doubt
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • uncertainty

When the arms are massaged, this cue is a self-pacifying gesture similar to the “self-hug.” When it’s combined with other gestures, you can be more certain of what this cue can mean. Be sure to check out our guide on baselining and how to read body language in clusters:

Body Language: What It Is & How to Read It

Calling all awkward people everywhere—if you’re naturally introverted and socially awkward like I used to be, then you may be guilty of gluing your arms to the sides of your body!

What it Means: Dead arms can indicate nervousness or anxiety.

And if your arms naturally stick to your sides, it might not be because you’re nervous or anxious. You just might not know where to put your arms in the first place!

Interestingly, Navarro observed that dead arms can be an indicator of child abuse. Dead arms in abused children happens when children restrict their arm movements whenever an abusive parent or other predator is nearby.

Why? Because the more a child moves, the more likely they are to be noticed and targeted by the abuser. Navarro also noticed that shoplifters tend to look around a lot and use fewer arm movements than regular shoppers.

How to Avoid it: Are you a victim of the dead arms syndrome? This cue can come naturally to those who aren’t used to taking up a lot of space or feel naturally underconfident. Try using more hand gestures, or incorporate some of our confident body language hacks in your everyday life.

Arms glued to your side? Try a confident power pose to get those arms moving!

How to Tell if a Hug is Genuine

How do you know when someone really wants to hug you? If you’ve ever gotten one of these hugs before, then it may be obvious that they don’t (and I can sadly relate!): The key to look for is in the upper arms. If the other person keeps their upper arms close to their body, only extending their arms out at the elbows, this signals that they’re holding back on their hug3. They may be welcoming you, but they’re likely not particularly excited to meet you.

Watch out for the half-hug the next time you hug someone!

The Expansive scale: 4

My cheeks flushed. I felt angry. I felt cheated.

Just thinking back to this story brings back flashes of red-hot rage. Can you relate?

I had bought a bunch of bananas from a seller at the local market in Shanghai, only to find out that I had paid 3x the normal price for them.

Sure, it was just some bananas. But my spunky college-aged self didn’t take well to being cheated.

So I immediately stood my ground, channeled my inner alpha female, and spread my arms out wide while demanding my money back.

Basically, I looked like a really angry soccer player after losing a goal.

And to my surprise? It worked! I got most of my money back and made myself a delicious banana smoothie afterwards. Mm-mm!

What it Means: This cue is used to establish dominance and emphasize a person’s point of view. As a conversation becomes more and more heated, you’ll often see the arms going out wider and wider3.

I think this looks similar to how a crossing guard uses his arms. It literally means “Stop!”

Ticket agents can even identify passengers who will be the most problematic simply by observing how wide their arms are positioned when at the counter3.

Navarro also mentions a story of a SWAT operation plan in Lakeland, Florida:

  • The mission planner, during his confident presentation of the operation plans, had his arms outstretched over 2 chairs.
  • However… when someone asked if the paramedics were contacted, the mission planner immediately put his arms between his knees and shrunk down.

Why? Because he didn’t contact the paramedics… he missed a critical component of the mission!

Shrinking arms can also mean shrinking confidence.

Imagine you’re running in a glorious race. You’ve trained for months, and it’s the last stretch of the run. You grind out your efforts to 110%, pushing your legs the hardest they can go. Finally, you break the finish line… in first place!

It’s sweet, sweet victory, and the crowd goes wild as you bask in your glory.

What does your pose look like during this time of victory?

Chances are, you struck a pose like this:

What it Means: This is the classic victory pose and is a very godlike pose. We use it when feeling victorious, super-confident, and the center of attention.

How to Use it: You can make a grand entrance when using this gesture. Read more in our hand gesture article.

Have you ever noticed an exaggerated arm swing when someone is walking? Soldiers often do this when marching in groups.

Soldiers doing exaggerated arm swing

What it Means: The army march evolved from younger people swinging their arms higher to show youth and vigor. But it’s not only used by young people now. Many politicians and public figures have adopted this way of walking to show their vigor and confidence.

Vladimir Putin walking with his signature “gunslinger gait,” with one arm swinging wider than the other.

Vladimir Putin walking with his signature “gunslinger gait,” with one arm swinging wider than the other.

How to Use it: Swing your arms when walking if you want to demonstrate youthfulness and excitement. It’s useful if you’re walking on stage to give an exciting speech or presentation, or you want to demonstrate your excitement during a job interview.

What does your walking style say about you? Find out more in our posture article here:

Proxemics: How to Use the 4 Zones in ANY Social Situation

Arms Behind Head Body Language Cue

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Arms Behind Head

The Expansive scale: 4

Pop quiz! Can you guess what emotion the person below is feeling?

man with his hands behind his head and face cover by a question mark

a) anger
b) confidence
c) sadness
d) disgust

Click to Reveal Answer

The answer is b) confidence!

convident man with his hands behind his head

What it Means: Generally, this is a sign of confidence. Superiors such as bosses and managers may be seen doing this in their office. This gesture also exposes the vulnerable chest and neck areas, so this cue demonstrates high comfort in front of people who are usually lower ranking.

You’ll also rarely ever see lower-level people do this in front of higher-ranks. In fact, do this repeatedly in front of your boss and you might find yourself writing up your next resume!

The Expansive scale: 4

What it Means: Elbows far and wide are a sign of high confidence.

Confident man on a motorcycle
Possibly the most confident guy on the planet.

When sitting at a table, when someonewho feels good may have their elbows resting wide, showing a relaxed and confident demeanor. Most of the time, this cue is subconscious and we’re not aware of how wide we display our elbows5.

Woo, boy! Is it getting hot in here, or what?

Arms can be sexy. They’re a rock-solid display of masculinity, and most women love seeing a nice pair of forearms. In fact, in a 2011 survey by HerCampus of over 100 college girls, arms were ranked #1 as the most attractive body part.

Attraction: That’s why rolling up the sleeves can be an attraction signal. People may subconsciously do this to ramp up the attraction factor if they’re interested.

Readiness: This also signals they are ready to get to work. You’ll often see this in movies right before they get serious:

Comfort: In business meetings or other formal settings, this cue acts as a “de-formalizer” and signals relaxation.

Aggression: Other times, it can be a sign of aggression. Men will often remove their jackets and roll up their sleeves to give themselves better fighting chances right before a bar fight.

Tattoos, scars, watches, patches, injuries—whether it’s status, hobbies, or occupation, we can gather useful information from what someone has on their arms.

Adornments infographic

For example, virtual avatars with tattoos were seen as more adventure-seeking, less inhibited, and having more previous sexual partners than those without tattoos6.

However, tattoos can have a negative effect, especially in court:

  • Multiple surveys were conducted with multiple groups of men and women to find out how jurors viewed tattoos.
  • Tattoos were perceived by jurors to be low-class and a low-status form of youthful indiscretion.

In short, tattoos are not very well-liked and can be a negative if you ever find yourself in the bas side of the courtroom. Nowadays, times are changing and acceptance of arm adornments is becoming more widespread than ever.

The Expansive scale: 3

If you’ve ever done something horribly wrong as a kid (or even as a responsible adult), you might have offered your arms out toward someone as if to say, “I’m sorry.”

What it Means: Extended arms is a submissive gesture, often used to nonverbally “give” someone your apology.

You may see this gesture with a sad microexpression and head shaking no. Even chimpanzees use this language to apologize (timestamp 2:18):

You may even see this one with famous celebrities, as huge crowds of fans will reach out their arms in a nonverbal way of saying, “Take my hand!”

Cartoon Happiness Arm Body Language Cue

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Cartoon Happiness

The Expansive scale: 2

If you ever watched Looney Tunes as a kid, you might have noticed a silly extension of the arms some of the characters do to show happiness.

Looney Tunes Sylvester silly extension of the arms
Sylvester the Cat showing happiness

Arms against body, hands flexed—restrained elation.

What it Means: This is called restrained elation. It happens when someone is happy, but they want to conceal their emotions5. You can also see this when the arms are against the body, but the hands are flexed upwards at almost a 90-degree angle with the palms down.

For example, you’ll see this cue when an employee is pleased with himself after receiving very positive feedback but doesn’t want to be overly happy in front of his boss.

Take a deep breath. What’s that smell? If you’re around someone with their armpits showing, you might be smelling some rather unpleasant body odor.

What it Means: Science says this is the smell of confidence. When we raise our arms in the air or otherwise expose our armpits, we signal comfort. We even expose our armpits when giving a simple wave toward someone.

People who expose their pits in the business room may be feeling confident about a negotiation, and if you’re on a date and see his armpits exposed… well first, hopefully they smell good, and second, this is a GOOD sign of attraction!

Women may also scratch the back of their head and expose their armpit, pointing it toward a person of interest to gain their attention5.

Selena Gomez confidently flaunting her armpits
Selena Gomez confidently flaunting her armpits
Don't Smell Me Arm Body Language Cue

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Don’t Smell Me!

The Expansive scale: 1

On the other hand, you’ve got the opposite cue where we’ll cover our armpits and bring our elbows closer together.

What it Means: When our arms go from wide to narrow, we drop them down to protect our pits. If someone has their elbows wide, as soon as they feel insecure or someone threatening walks by, watch as their elbows may narrow!

You can see this cue in many other situations:

  • during Thanksgiving dinner when your mother brings up embarrassing childhood memories
  • from your coworker as his idea is struck down in a business meeting
  • from little kids as they are forced to eat their peas and broccoli

As conversation topics shift, we can assess confidence by how wide the space is between a person’s elbows.

Woman sitting with her elbows in a small triangle postion

How to Use it: Next time you see this gesture, notice what triggers it. Is it a conversation topic that makes them stressed? Consider avoiding the topic or logging it in your relationship planner.

When we are preparing for a physical altercation, our brain wants to make sure we’re on the ready for the offensive. Clenching forearms is a type of tightening that happens when angry.

When we are angry, we often grip our hands tightly into tough fists. You can often see the shift from relaxed to tense forearm by the movement of the forearm muscles and veins.

If you are speaking with someone and notice they have just tightened their grip, tread carefully.

Aggressive Body Language: Telltale Signs and How to Deescalate

The Arms of a Leader

Former US President Bill Clinton was known for his powerful body language. In this 1996 DNC Convention speech, Clinton used a variety of hand gestures to illustrate his point. But he also uses his whole arms to gesture and sway the crowd.

Relationship status can be determined by arm position.

Goosebumps don’t always happen when you’re cold. There’s actually something wildly cool called “skin orgasms” (it’s a lot tamer than you might think!).

What it Means: These skin orgasms occur when we listen to beautiful, inspiring music.

According to Mitchell Colver, a researcher who studied this experience (called frisson), this happens because our emotional brain is tricked into being threatened by beautiful pieces of music. Interestingly, research also found that electrical activity in the skin increased by 20% when participants heard the voice of a fertile female.

We also get goosebumps when we’re scared. Even our primate ancestors showed hair going up when fearful. But since we don’t have much body hair, we get goosebumps instead5.

Stranger or Nephew?

Imagine you see a man walking an old lady across the street.

How do you tell if the man is a stranger or her nephew?

The answer is in the arms:
If the man is a stranger… he will likely take her arm, supporting it by grasping under her elbow.
If the man is her nephew… the old woman will likely take HIS arm, linking her hand through the crook of his elbow.

Why does this happen? If the 2 are strangers, the old lady likely asked him to help her, so he grabbed her arm first4. But if they’re related, there’s no need to go through that little initiation ceremony! She’ll take his arm automatically without the formality.

 Microtouch Body Language Cue

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Bonus: The Microtouch

If someone touches you on the arm, chances are it might be accidental.

Or it might not be.

Here’s the deal about us women: we’ll find ANY opportunity to initiate touch… and it’s usually not just a “coincidence”2.

  • a light touch on the arm
  • a gentle shoulder stroke
  • an “accidental” touch of the shoulder

These “microtouches” are signals we send to others to gauge interest. And when we receive that touch back, we can be more certain that the interest is mutual. Or if you don’t react at all, we might try again.

On a date? Look for the “microtouch” that signals a desire to increase intimacy.

Touching works because we have a huge amount of sensory receptors in our arms, and activating these receptors generates sensuous pleasure.

Even having our arms near someone else’s signals that we’re comfortable… And as soon as a conversation goes sour, we’ll take our arms away as if saying, “Don’t touch me!”

How to Get Slightly Richer, One Coin at a Time

In an experiment by the Peases called the “Phone Booth Test,” researchers at the University of Minnesota placed a coin on the ledge of a telephone booth and waited for someone to find it.

When it was found by a stranger, the researchers would approach the stranger and ask, “Did you happen to see my coin in that phone booth? I need it to make another call.”

The results? Only 23% of subjects admitted they found it and gave it back.

But there’s a 2nd part: when the researcher did the same experiment but introduced a light touch on the elbow when asking the question, 68% of strangers admitted to having the coin!

Waitresses who touched customers’ elbows and hands made 36% more in tips from male diners, and male waiters increased their earnings by 22%, regardless of gender.

Introduce an elbow touch to your conversations to get a stranger to like you.

1 Driver, J. & van Aalst, M (2011): You Say More Than You Think: The 7-day Plan for Using the New Body Language to Get what You Want. New York: Three Rivers Press 2 Pease, A. (2017). The definitive book of body language: How to read others’ attitudes by their gestures. London: Orion. 3 Navarro, J., & Karlins, M. (2015). What every BODY is saying: An ex-FBI agent’s guide to speed-reading people. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 4 Morris, D. (2012). Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language. London: Vintage Digital. 5 Navarro, J. (2018). The dictionary of body language: A field guide to human behavior. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. 6 Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2014). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!

About Science of People

Our mission is to help you achieve your social and professional goals faster using science backed, practical advice. Our team curates the best communication, relationship and social skills research; turning into actionable and relatable life skills. Science of People was founded by Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma.

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