A physical defence in social situations

April 23, 2011 by
Filed under: Gestures 

Social situations can be very emotionally threatening for people. When we grow up, we learn to use and train different nonverbal mechanisms to hide this insecurity, but in every age category, as a small child or adult, a trained eye can easily recognize these bodylanguage signals.

If a social situation feels threatening, it is in our nature to throw up a (nonverbal) barricade. For a small child it is easy to hide behind its mother if they meet a stranger on the street or in a store. They can hide their face behind their hands, pull their hat over their face or crawl higher in the safe arms of their parent. From this position the child feels more at ease to look at the stranger to see what their actions are. We all recognize the feeling to be safe in our bed with the sheets covering our face; its one of the few places we can really feel safe, even as an adult.

Adults who suffer from depression it is a saying heared alot: ‘All i want to do is lie in bed and sleep all day’. Its a different way of saying ‘ im too afraid to step into the real world and face the uncomfortable situations i might encounter’. Of course depressed people feel left out of energy, but the step to come out of bed and meet the world is a step you need to take, how threatening the world around them might seem to feel…

When we grow up, this pattern or fear usually reduces. At the adult age, it is expected to disappear, and we bravely stride out to meet our friends, family or strangers. The insecure feeling or fear doesnt disappear, but over the years, we learn ways to cover it better. In other words, the feeling of fear is still there, but the expression is blocked to a certain extend. Our adult roles demand control and suppression of the primitive urge to withdraw and hide ourselves. The more dominant or unfamiliar our social companions are, and the more formal the occasion is, the more worrying the moment of encouter becomes.

The Body Cross

One of the most popular forms for putting up a physical barrier seen with adults is the crossed arms, or body cross. In this, the hands or arms are brought together in front of the body, forming a temporary bar like a bumper on a car. When a person feels socially attacked, like getting negative feedback, this a gesture often seen. It gives a feeling of security; a last defence of the body. Often it is formed unconsciously, and if brought up on the subject person right after, the person will not be able to remember making the gesture.




There a alot of variations on this theme. A male may finger a button or the strap of a watch. It is a slightly different gesture, but the intent is the same; putting up a barrier between the subject and the social situation in front of that person. A female may smooth her scarf or coat held over her arm. In all cases there is one essential feature: at the peak moment of nervousness there is a body cross, in which one arm makes contact with the other across the front of the body, constructing a barrier.

Less disguised forms of the Body Cross are seen with less experienced or slightly nervous people. A man entering a restaurant, as he walks across an open space, rubs his hands together like washing them. A person who smokes is interesting to observe aswell. When put in a new social situation, like entering a bar or meeting with some one or a group of persons, one of the first things that are done is putting up a sigaret. For this individual this is a familiar gesture that takes a little time, often enough to observe the new situation. And during this ‘ ritual’ the person has some time of observe the situation and gives time to get a more comfortable feeling.

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