Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Body Language of the Arms, Hands, Feet, and Posture

Charlotte Firbank-King

Welcome back! This is part three of a three-part series discussing body language and how we can use it to strengthen our writing. If you’ve missed either of our earlier articles, you may want to stop, go back, and read them first. They can be found here and here.

In today’s blog, we’re discussing the body language of the hands, arms, feet, and posture. Once we realize we should use action and body language instead of dialogue tags, our natural tendency is to concentrate on the face, saying things like “he smiled” or “he frowned” or “he laughed.” So, your challenge today: First, go through your manuscript and highlight every time you’ve used one of the “easy” descriptors: smiled, grinned, laughed, frowned, grimaced, nodded, shrugged, and so forth. Then, replace those easy words with something more complex. This is where a study in body language will help. We have more than just the face to look at. It’s the entire body that tells us what we need to know. So, without further ado, let’s look at the body language relating to emotions.

Body Language of the Arms

Crossed arms are one of the “easy” actions we overuse in writing. However, it can still be effective, as long as it’s not overused. Crossed arms indicates the individual is closing himself to social influence. Some people habitually cross their arms, which may indicate the person is slightly reserved, uncomfortable with his appearance, self-conscious and trying to cover it, or just trying to hide something on his clothes, such as a stain or a tear. Crossed arms do not always reflect a defensive stance. Sometimes, especially if the legs are also splayed, it can indicate the person is aggressive, with a feeling of superiority or power. If arms are crossed while the feet are shoulder width or wider apart, toughness or authority is indicated. Crossed arms may also mean that a person is angry but trying not to show it.

If someone rubs his hands together or touches or strokes his own body, he may be comforting or soothing himself. This could be because he’s sad or upset over a recent event, or it could mean he isn’t enjoying the current situation.

If someone rests his arms behind his neck or head, he is open to what is being discussed—or, he may be just laid-back in general.

Exaggerated movements of the hands or arms can show passion or interest in a subject.

Body Language of the Hands

There are many ways in which hand gestures can help us understand what a person (or character) really means. Some of these gestures are learned—such as the classic “thumbs up” or “giving the finger” or using the index finger as the “we are number one” sign. But others are natural reflexes that can help us communicate more effectively.

A character with his palms slightly up and outward shows openness and friendliness. However, if he holds his palms down, he is likely to be dominant or possibly aggressive, especially when there is no movement or bending between the wrist and the forearm. Hands up and palms out as in “I give up” is literally that, if both hands are used. One hand, palm up and facing the speaker may be “enough!”

A firm handshake gives the impression of assertiveness or honesty; too firm is arrogant or challenging.

Hands placed on the heart show sincerity. However, since this is one of the better known gestures, it can sometimes be used as a deliberate action to deceive. 

Hands clasped at the midriff show subservience. 

Hands clasped behind the back can mean a person is confident. However, the person may be deliberately clasping his hands behind his back in order to appear confident or to avoid using them in an illustrative manner. Military people often stand like this out of habit.

Hands on the hips shows anger, defiance, and impatience.

Hands that are closed or clenched can represent irritation, anger, or nervousness. 

Pregnant women may put their hands on their stomachs if they feel threatened, indicating a desire to protect the unborn child.

If a stomach is churning with fear or excitement, the individual may put his hands on his stomach to quell the emotion. Butterflies in the tummy are an increase in adrenaline.

Frequent reaching forwards or superfluous hand gestures can mean that someone is trying to convince another person of something. The exact meaning of these gestures will depend largely on context.

If someone brushes his hair back with his fingers, this may be preening, a common gesture if the person is attracted to someone.

A character could touch his hair in a flicking manner if his thoughts conflict with another person. He may never speak a word of disagreement, but raised eyebrows combined with this action probably means he disagrees with the person.

Twisting hair is generally a nervous action.

Running fingers through hair or rubbing the back of their neck usually indicates irritation or exasperation in a situation.

When a person taps his fingers on something, it's usually a sign of excitement or impatience.

If a person wears glasses and is constantly pushing them up onto his nose with a slight frown, it may also indicate he disagrees with what a person is saying—unless, of course, it’s a habit or the glasses don’t fit properly.

Lowered eyebrows and narrowed eyes illustrate an attempt at understanding what is being said or going on. It's usually skeptical. This is presuming the character is not trying to observe something that's far away.

Body Language of the Feet

Tapping quickly, shifting weight, laughing, or moving the foot will most often mean the person is impatient, excited, nervous, scared, or intimidated. The surrounding context will need to provide the clues as to which emotion is being conveyed.

If a person is talking to someone and both feet face the speaker the listener is interested. If one foot is pointed away from the speaker, the listener doesn’t want to be there; he is eager to leave. This is just an interesting aside and would be too complicated to use in a story.

If someone taps his foot while another talks, he may have a desire to leave. Context will tell us if he needs to leave because of another appointment or if he’s frustrated with the person speaking. This behavior usually manifests when the person is anxious to get somewhere. 

If a couple’s legs or feet touch while flirting, tapping of a foot could be interpreted as nervous excitement. If they’re uncomfortable, they would discreetly move away from the contact, a much more subtle escape than telling the person to move away.

If a person is sitting, feet crossed at the ankles, he is generally at ease.

If, while standing, a person keeps his feet close together, he may be trying to be "proper" in some way. Sometimes feet close together conveys a feeling of submissiveness or passiveness.

If someone purposely touches another person’s feet, it’s likely he is flirting. However, if he knows the person well and other people are present, it may be a warning nudge.

So, there you have it. Lots of ways to add depth to your characters, get rid of dialogue tags and meaningless expressions, and bring your writing up another level.

If you’ve done everything you can to make your manuscript the best it can be, send it to our editors at We can give you an honest evaluation and show you more ways to improve your writing.

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