Defensive Body Language and Attitude

Oliver Jay

After we’ve explored the correct posture to project confidence and power it’s time to look at more defensive postures. Defensive body language occurs when we feel physical or emotional threat and we response by covering vulnerable body parts.

Let’s see how this behavior can reveal hidden attitude and how it can affect the point of view of the “defender” towards his surroundings.

Hiding and Shielding

‘s interesting to see how our body language evolves as we grow because it changes very quickly to adapt to our environment. People learn to express the same emotions and attitudes as they did as children – only with much more subtlety and self control, especially in societies where it’s not appropriate to express emotions. The defensive body language is a good example of this.

Little children who feel insecure and ashamed often hide behind a piece of furniture or their mother’s skirt, seeking cover and protection. In older age, however, we cannot use these obvious and inappropriate ways to defend ourselves so we create other artificial barriers to help us feel more comfortable and secure.

The most known and obvious gesture is the folding the arms. Hugging yourself provides comfort and protection to the vulnerable area of the chest, containing the heart and lungs.

There are different ways to fold arms – clenched arms, arms folded tightly, crossing arms with exposed hands and many more. These gestures all project defensiveness but on different scale and attitude. For example when the fists are clenched it’s a display of a more aggressive and hostile attitude than the usual arm folding, and can come as a warning before a physical assault.

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Other forms of barriers appear in the legs and ankles. Crossing the legs is more subtle and mild way to hide insecurity. Crossing the ankles can also be an equivalent gesture of biting the lip – a signal that this person is holding something inside and not expressing it.


It Takes Only One Hand to…

Now let’s see some more advanced way to cover insecurity and defensive feelings. People who wish to appear confident and secure about themselves, and usually more aware about their body language, adopt less obvious gestures to relieve emotional tension and ease themselves. Examples:

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  • Playing with the wrist watch
  • Holding different items in front of the body – book, bag, umbrella, your brother… you name it.
  • Holding a glass of drink with both hands – we don’t need both hands to support the weight of the glass, but holding it with both hands creates a small zone of comfort.
hiding behind hands

These are some examples of defensive behavior equal to the arms folding only in a “clever way”, look for them in people who wish to be seen “in control” but actually have some doubts and fears.

Another interesting posture is the hands crossed in front of the genitals – often seen in funerals and somber events. It’s a self comfort and introvert position.

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Attitude That makes other Defensive

Excuses… Excuses…

Some people who often seen with defensive body language reply that they just feel comfortable in this posture… and that is true, because the body language match the mood and attitude of this person – so if the body feels more comfortable in being closed the person has a more introvert and reserved kind of personality or mood at the moment.

Remember also that your body language interpretation is made by the receiver – folding the arms keep out people, and most people won’t fell very at ease with you in this posture.


Another issue is the cold, people who cross their hands often tell that they are simply cold, not defensive…so how to make the difference? Just remember yourself when you were cold – you probably stuck your hands in your armpits, not under the elbows, and your crossed legs were straight and tense, not easily rested.

Blocking Thoughts


When I was in security personnel training, my trainer told us to keep our hands to the side when he spoke. He knew that crossed body language is not only blocking our attitude towards him but also blocking the reception of critical information he was about to deliver.

Studies made on the defensive body language discovered that it creates a more negative stance towards the speaker and block information up to 38 % – that’s a lot of information gone missing only because we held back. More importantly the longer you stay in that position the more negative and closed you will feel towards the speaker.

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So, if you want someone to listen to you closely and you spot the crossed position try to disarm him by engaging him with some activity – hand him an object, ask him to lean closer and look at some details or just ask him if he has any questions or thoughts about what you’ve just said.

One Last Thing

hiding in the sand

I don’t want to leave the impression that defensive body language is all bad and you should always avoid it. Like with all other body language signs – it reflects something internal and expressing it outside. So if you’re with a group of strangers it’s natural if you won’t feel very secure with them and stay on guard until you know and like them a little better.

Remember also that we tend to copy the body language of others in a subconscious way, so if a group of people conversing together with their arms folded, it doesn’t mean that a conflict is about to start, on the contrary, it can be a mutual display of the same frame of mind.

What I want you to take from this article is that you can make yourself more approachable by adopting open body language, especially if you’re known as the “ice man”.

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