Aha! I Knew That's Why You Were Crossing Your Arms!

When our new trainees arrive at their first media training sessions, they tend to be a little nervous. They know they’re going to be interviewed in front of their peers, and their fear of failure usually provokes at least a little bit of anxiety.

So when I look around the room at the beginning of the day, it’s not unusual to see a few trainees with their arms crossed across their chests.

People typically barricade their bodies when they feel threatened, defensive, anxious, or closed off. But when I point out their body language to them, virtually all of them say the same thing:

“I’m not closed off. I’m just cold.”

Three businesspeople talking.

I’ve always known that was wrong. When they get more comfortable later in the day, their arms uncross, while the room temperature stays exactly the same. Joe Navarro confirms my suspicions in his excellent book “What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. He writes:

“It could be argued that women (or men) cross their arms simply because they are cold. But this does not negate the nonverbal meaning, since cold is a form of discomfort…When we are distressed the limbic brain engages various systems of the body in preparation for the freeze/flight-or-fight survival response. One of the effects is that the blood is channeled toward the large muscles of the limbs and away from the skin…Since blood is the main source of our body warmth, diverting blood away from the skin and into deeper muscle makes the body’s surface feel cooler.”

So the trainees are right that they’re feeling cold. But they’re wrong about “just” being cold. They’re cold because they’re uncomfortable—and because their bodies have responded to their distress.

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