Crossed arms are a body language signal that can often be difficult to interpret. If you have recently observed someone crossing their arms and you want to know why then this post will try to help you to figure that out and to help you with figuring it out in the future.

So, what does it mean when someone crosses their arms? There are a number of possible reasons someone might cross their arms. It could be due to being cold, to soothe anxiety or stress, to protect one’s self when feeling vulnerable, to signal displeasure, disagreement, they could be mirroring or it could be to encourage others to go away.

People will often jump to the conclusion that crossed arms mean that a person is closed off and doesn’t want to be approached or talked to.

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However, there are actually a lot of other possible reasons that a person might have their arms crossed.

The best way to figure out how they’re feeling is to consider the situation and to look at other body language cues they’re displaying.

Possible reasons why someone might cross their arms

When trying to figure out why someone might cross their arms it’s important to remember that people don’t cross their arms in a conscious act. Instead, it is an unconscious action that happens as a result of a person’s emotional state.

This means that when you’re trying to figure out why someone might cross their arms it’s important to consider what emotional trigger could cause it.

To soothe anxiety or stress

One reason that someone might cross their arms is to soothe a feeling of anxiety or stress. When crossing the arms it can give a person a sense of increased security which can help to reduce how anxious they might be feeling.

This type of arm crossing will likely come with other stress-relieving behaviors. You should pay particular attention to behaviors that are used to soothe areas where there are lots of nerves. This means that you should look for actions such as neck rubbing or touching, arm rubbing, nose rubbing or wiping the cheeks.

You should also consider recent events that may have occurred that might be causing the person to feel anxious. If you know that the person has recently had bad news, has been in a fight or if they are waiting for an exam result or to see the doctor. Then stress or anxiety is more likely to be the cause of the arm crossing.

Feeling vulnerable or insecure

The cause of the crossed arms could actually be that it is functioning as a self-hugging type of behavior designed to make the person feel safer.

When we’re younger we might have received hugs from our parents when we were scared and many people will adapt this into a self-hug when in adulthood.

If someone has their arms crossed in this situation then it might seem like they are trying to close themselves off from others and that they don’t want to interact with others.

However, that won’t necessarily be the case since the crossed arms have a self-comforting purpose in this case and are not being done to signal that they are unhappy.

This type of arm crossing would be more likely to occur when someone is in a social setting such as if they’re waiting to receive an award on stage or if they’re at a party where there are a number of people that they don’t know.

Another body language behavior that would likely be combined with the crossed arms, in this case, would be arm rubbing. Doing this can help us to reassure ourselves that everything is ok.

To signal not wanting to do something

It could be that the cause of the arm crossing is that we are subconsciously signaling displeasure and not wanting to do something.

Some scenarios where this would commonly occur would be when children are asked to tidy their rooms, when someone is asked to go to an event that they don’t want to or when waiting to enter the doctor’s room.

If this is the cause of the arm crossing then there will likely be some other body language cues that would align themselves with it.

It would likely be the case that they have their lips closed and slightly tight, they might slouch at the shoulders or slouch lower into their chair, their pupils would likely constrict slightly, the chin will often be lowered towards the neck and they may also show signs of trying to avoid face to face contact.

To encourage others to go away

The arm crossing could be a subconscious way that the person is signaling that they want the conversation to end.

If this is the case then the crossed arms will likely be combined with other behaviors such as pointing the feet towards the exit. Many people do not think to look at the feet when trying to figure out how another person is feeling but they can actually be one of the most honest signals. If the feet are pointing towards the exit and the arms are crossed then that would be a sign of displeasure and that they are thinking of leaving.

Some other body language signals would be if they only give closed-lip smiles, constricted pupils, looking away frequently, a lack of touching the other person, lip compression, they may start tapping their feet and they will probably be giving one-word answers and not adding to the discussion.

Mirroring

The crossed arms could actually be a good sign.

When people become close with each other you will often notice that they begin to mirror each other’s behavior.

With that being the case, you could have someone showing numerous signs of displeasure without actually feeling that way since they are simply mirroring the body language of the person that they like and feel comfortable with.

If you noticed that the person crossed their arms shortly after a person that they were with crossed their arms but otherwise showed signs of enjoyment then mirroring is likely to be the cause of why they crossed their arms.

To warn others

The reason that someone might cross their arms might be to discourage others from approaching them.

This is a conclusion that many people jump to too quickly when they see someone with their arms crossed. However, as mentioned already, it’s not necessarily the actual reason that they might have their arms crossed.

Despite that, it is a possible reason, and it is one that will likely come with other signs of not wanting to be approached.

Some other things to look for would be if the feet are pointing away, or if the legs are crossed then they will likely be facing towards the exit or away from people that they don’t like, closed lips, they may also employ blocking behaviors like rubbing the eyes or placing themselves behind an object.

Disagreement

The cause of the arm crossing could be that they are signaling disagreement.

When someone hears something that they disagree with they will often cross their arms. This may be because it is a soothing behavior that can help to alleviate feelings of increasing stress.

This is the type of arm crossing that will occur when someone is talking to them and they suddenly cross their arms after hearing something that was said.

If you’re talking to someone or a group of people and you notice that they cross their arms after something that you say then you should consider the problems that they might have with what you said. You should also consider some ways to address the problems that they might have with it and you should try to get them out of the crossed arm position if you want them to be responsive to you in a positive way.

To consider alternative thought

The reason that someone might cross their arms is to take a moment to consider something that they heard.

This would be slightly different to crossing their arms due to disagreement since, in this case, they are taking a moment to consider the alternative point of view instead of showing disagreement.

This type of arm crossing would likely be combined with other behaviors such as a momentary pause and looking away.

To appear bigger

The reason that some people might cross their arms is that it makes their upper body appear to be larger.

This is why you will see people in positions of authority doing this at times especially if they are there to be guarding something such as with bouncers at night clubs or bars.

They’re cold

It’s important not to look at single body language gestures too far. It could simply be that the person had their arms crossed due to being cold.

Depends on the situation

When trying to figure out why someone might have their arms crossed one of the main things that you should consider is the environment that they are in.

If it’s in a business meeting then the crossed arms are going to be more likely to signal disagreement, wanting to leave, displeasure or perhaps anxiety.

Whereas, crossed arms will be more likely to signal different things in a social setting. If you’re talking to a new person and they suddenly cross their arms after something you said that would signal disagreement. Or, are they just stood there with crossed arms? then could be nervousness or it could be to signal that the doesn’t want to be approached.

Look for other body language cues

It’s important not to try to figure out what another person is thinking or feeling like based on one body language signal. Instead, you should look for body language clusters that all signal a similar meaning.

Below I will mention some other body language signals that you might want to look for when you see someone crossing their arms:

  • Clenched Jaw

If the person has their arms crossed and their jaws are clenched then that could signal that the person is feeling aggressive. Other signals to look for, in this case, would be a red face, clenched fists, sweating and hard squinting.

  • Constricted or dilated pupils

When people are feeling good it can actually cause their pupils to dilate. Whereas, if someone is feeling negative it can cause their pupils to constrict.

If the person has their arms crossed but you notice that their pupils are particularly dilated then that would signal that the crossed arms are not crossed due to negative reasons. This would especially be the case if it’s coupled with, wide-open eyes, smiling with creases by the eyes and showing the teeth, a maintained gaze and an effort on their part to further the discussion.

  • Sweating

Sweating combined with crossed arms would signal that the person is either feeling stressed, anxious and/or aggressive. You should look for other soothing gestures to differentiate between feeling anxious/stressed or aggressive. For example, if they’re rubbing their arms then that would signal that they are feeling anxious or stressed but not necessarily aggressive.

  • Quivering

If the person is quivering in some way as well as crossing their arms that would be a sign that the person is feeling very stressed. Other signs would be slouching, staring, or paleness.

  • Blushing

Blushing, combined with arm crossing, could be a signal of some anxiety. An example could be that the person is talking to someone that they find attractive and they’re nervous.

  • Feet facing the exit

If the person has their arms crossed and their feet are facing the exit then that would be a sign that they are not happy and they want to leave. Some other things to look for here would be short answers, not adding to the discussion, non-genuine smiles, frequently looking away especially towards the exit or their friends and forced laughter at jokes.

  • Squinting or eyes wide open?

If the eyes are wide open and the legs are crossed when standing it would signal that the person doesn’t want to leave since it puts them off balance and it makes it harder to move.

Whereas, if they’re squinting with their arms crossed it would be a sign of displeasure. Other things to look for would be a clenched jaw, clenched fists, sweating, and redness of the face.

  • Vocal tone

You should consider the vocal tone of the person that has their arms crossed. If their voice is deeper than usual then that would be a dominating sign and could signal things like aggression or a strong disagreement with the subject.

If they’re speaking at a higher pitch than normal then it would be a sign of feeling nervous if coupled with other things such as self-rubbing.

  • Smile

If they cross their arms and they are only giving a half-smile where they do not open their mouth, show their teeth or crease at the sides of the eyes, then that would be a sign that they are just standing there to be polite. Other body language cues to look for here would be feet pointing towards the exit and glances towards the exit or their friends.

On the other hand, if they are giving genuine smiles and they are continuing the conversation, mirroring the other person’s body language and are frequently touching then that would actually be a strong display of wanting to stay put.

Reasons why you should avoid crossing the arms

You might think that crossing your arms isn’t a problem but there are actually a number of reasons that you might want to avoid.

It makes it harder to recall information

In the book Body Language For Dummies, the authors say that sitting with folded arms and legs in a lecture resulted in a 38% fall in retention.

Although, other studies have actually shown that crossing the arms can help when trying to solve a problem since it makes it less likely that you’ll leave.

It makes people think that you don’t want to talk

Even though having your arms folded doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re trying to prevent interactions with others it does look that way to the untrained eye.

This means that if you want to want to appear to be more approachable then you should make an effort to refrain from crossing your arms.

Things to consider

There are some additional things that you should consider when you’re trying to figure out why someone might have their arms crossed. Below I will mention a number of them.

Your relationship with the person

When trying to figure out why they might have their arms crossed it would be helpful to consider your relationship with the person. If you know that you have a good relationship with them then it could signal that they are happy where they are if it is combined with things such as genuine smiles, continuing the conversation and other positive behaviors.

If you recently had an argument with the person or you know that they don’t like you then the folded arms could be a signal of wanting to be left alone.

Things that may have happened recently

It’s also important to consider things that may have recently happened to the person when you’re trying to figure out why they might have their arms crossed. If you know that they recently went through a traumatic event for example then the arm crossing could be a self-hugging type behavior.

In what way are the arms crossed?

There are a number of different ways that people will cross their arms. If they’re tightly crossed then that would be a more negative signal than if they are only loosely crossed. If they are rubbing their arms with their arms crossed then that would be a soothing behavior and would make it more likely to be due to stress or anxiety. If the fists are clenched then it would signal displeasure or aggression assuming that it’s coupled with other negative body language cues.

Try to get them into a neutral position

Since crossed arms can signal a negative emotional state if you want the person to interact with you in a positive way then you should make an attempt to get them out of the arms crossed position.

You could do so by addressing concerns that they might have, changing the topic to one that you know that they like and you should make sure not to have your arms crossed yourself. You could also simply hand them something to get them out of the position.

Related question

Why do people cross their arms when I talk to them?

If someone crosses their arms while you are talking to them then it could actually signal a few things.

If they cross their arms after you say something then it could mean that they disagree with what you just said and it will likely be combined with some of the negative gestures like eye contraction, closed lips or squinting mentioned above.

It might be a sign that they want to leave if they are also giving very short answers, have feet facing away from you and they are looking away often.

On the other hand, if you tend to cross your arms, then they might actually be mirroring your behavior. In that case, the crossed arms wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing since especially if they’re also continuing the conversation, laughing and showing other positive signs. However, you should make an attempt to stop crossing your arms since it can send the wrong signals.

If you want to learn more about body language, a book I would recommend would be The Definitive Book of Body Language (on Amazon). It shows you how to interpret body language and understand people's true intentions.

Author

I created and currently manage Body Language Central, one of the premier sources for body language-related knowledge. Body language plays a key role in our daily lives. I hope that my website can help condense the wide amount of body language information available and allow you to make full use of it in your daily life. You can read more about me and my website here.