Chapter 9 –Defensive And Aggressive Body Language

Summary – Chapter 9

In this chapter we covered defensive and aggressive body language. We found that double arm hug or arm crossing, partial arm crossing, arm gripping, fists and arm clenching, stiff or curved arms, or even cufflinks can be used to signal defensiveness. We learned that objects are used to shield the insecure by affording fewer angles of attack which is the case when we lean against a wall or bar top, hold a drink near our face or against our chest, or hide behind a podium whilst presenting. We discovered that headphones can be great tools for women who don’t want to be bothered, how pens, books, or newspapers indicate division between people and how conversations can be ended or avoided simply by raising a book. We found that other cues such as head bows, looking up to the side or through the forehead, avoiding eye contact, seeking escape routes with darting eyes, or reduce body size among others, show defensiveness.

On the other hand, we cut through defensiveness to study aggression which can include the in-your-face posture characterized by the hands on hips, feet together at attention, leaning forward with the head and chin up or out and exposed. We also saw that an aggressive person might get red in the face, cross or drop their arms to the side and clench their fists, finger point, become tense overall, clamp their jaw, tighten their lips, frown and lower their eyebrows. We learned that a stare lasting ten seconds or longer invokes anxiety and discomfort in subordinates in the ‘unblinking eyes’, and that overstepping boundaries can lead to conflict.

Invasion Of Space

A violation of personal space is indicated by her withdrawal.

A violation of personal space is indicated by her withdrawal.

Most hostile interactions in our lifetime will fall short of physical conflict but that doesn’t mean aggression was never present. We hold a buffer around our bodies at a premium and yet others still fail to acknowledge this, and choose to move closer then we wish. Disrespecting someone’s personal space is a form of aggression and dominant individuals routinely ignore personal space buffers, in fact, it’s one of the ways they maintain their dominance! Invasion of personal space can even come from brief touching or pats on the back, but also from more inappropriate touching such as jabs to the ribs with fingers, pens, or worse yet, slaps to the buttocks! Sometimes space invades will gain unwanted closeness by using friendly conversation, that we naturally read correctly as feigned.

Overstepping territorial boundaries is obvious to almost everyone because most have at least a rudimentary ability to read body language. We can test proximity comfort levels by stepping only so close as that which causes the next party to step or lean back. Leaning back carries the same weight, as a message, as a full or partial step back, it is just more polite. We can use the step back technique to send this message to space invaders, but it is often ineffective, as their intentions are usually intended to yield such results. Stepping back, and then quickly placing an open palm on their wrist or arm, or hovering a hand palm-vertical near the midline between you and them will serve to anchor them, preventing further advances. Often, the only solution is to be outright with the invasion and call them out. In this case, we should expect it to cause openly negative feelings which could strain a relationship, so should be carefully considered.

The Unblinking Eyes



Research shows us that a steady stare of more than ten seconds creates anxiety and discomfort especially in subordinates. When done on more dominant individuals it can lead to feelings of aggression and in extreme cases, even physical altercations.

Holding eye contact for slightly longer than normal can send a powerful message. When looking at strangers, it’s a common courtesy to look away when the eyes meet, at least after a few milliseconds have elapsed. Staring is only permitted while looking at inanimate objects (and celebrities). By holding an extended or even unblinking gaze toward strangers, we are telling them that we think of them no more important than objects, a phenomenon celebrities know only too well. Naturally, eye contact and staring means one thing to men, and something else entirely to women. When the sexes stare at each other, it’s usually due to competitiveness or envy, as in, sizing up the competition and other times out of pure curiousity. When the sexes stare at each other, it’s usually driven by sexual interest, however, women are far less prone to staring in any case.

We covered proper eye gaze patterns in an earlier chapter and saw that the intimate gaze happens when the eyes travel around the face and body of someone we care about. Staring, on the other hand, is unmoving. The eyes are piercing and intense, unblinking, and seem to want to penetrate the eyes of another. An aggressive stare is even more intense and happens by narrowing the eyelids creating a deep focus. Second to the unblinking eyes is the “slow blink”. This one can be imagined, but must really be seen to understand its true intensity. While a slow blink done with a tilt of the head can appear alluring when done by an attractive woman, it does nothing to arouse positive emotions when done head on. The slow blink is intensified by tilted the head forward revealing the crown, and especially intense when the head is tilted backwards while looking down at an opponent “through” the bridge of the nose. The final cue in the slow blink cue cluster is pursed lips and the cue cluster, as a whole, signals disapproval and contempt.

You’ve probably never made conscious the universal “stare test” but it goes something like this. First you use proper eye language cast around a busy room, perhaps a grocery store, horizontally focusing on whatever is of interest. By accident, you make eye contact with someone and to show that you are no threat, you quickly shift your eyes to the left or right and continue a normal eye pattern. If no “eye flash” happens, as we saw earlier, we understand them to be a stranger. To make sure you haven’t been targeted by eye assault, you return your gaze after a few moments to see if that person is still fixated on you. If they are, you drop eye contact again, but then quickly look back. If eye contact is met again, this will set you on alert, and so you begin a very minor fight or flight response by keeping your distance. At a subconscious level you have identified a possibly dangerous individual.

This isn't going well - she looks right through him.

This isn’t going well – she looks right through him.

We call the appropriate eye contact that doesn’t violate someone’s privacy the “moral looking time.” This is the length of time gaze is permitted before creating anxiety through offensiveness and in strangers is usually only one or two seconds. To be sure that you aren’t still being assaulted by someone else you will usually repeatedly look in the direction of the person who caught your eyes several times, and at random intervals. This is because we all subconsciously realize that the other person is measuring the same threat in us, as we are in them. If their eyes are continuously met with yours, you will show aggressive or “rude” facial expressions as a warning to cease eye contact. Women do this type of expression best and we call them “dirty looks.” They are meant to indicate a desire to be left alone, and that conversation and approaching is not welcome. Other times, women will know that staring is taking place but will purposely avoid eye contact. Just because a dirty look hasn’t been given, does not mean she hasn’t noticed, and does not mean that staring is welcomed. When eye contact is avoided, and gaze pattern rules aren’t properly engaged, the intent of this message is the same, give women space and don’t stare!

Signs Of Aggression

She's displeased and thinks you should know better.

She’s displeased and thinks you should know better.

We’ve seen the hands-on-hips posture before but it resurfaces again in the aggression classification because it is ready posture. In this case, the hands on hips, feet together at attention is accompanied by leaning forward with the head and chin up, or out, and exposed. The hands-on-hips puffs the person out making them seem larger and the feet spread at shoulder width increases stability putting them in a fighting stance. Observations have shown us that ignoring the puffed out chest is to be done at one’s own peril as it is a very strong indicator that a person is about to strike out in aggression. The classic ‘in-your-face’ type of posture indicates readiness for fight and isn’t to be confused with a business ready posture. The accompanying clues which are discussed next, shows an intent to fight, but also tension so there is overlap in fighting nonverbal language and that which stems from other negative emotions such as displeasure, fear, anger, antipathy and disgust. Therefore it is the context, once again, that will tell us the root source of the body language, be it fight or flight.

As aggression nears, our blood “boils” and rushes to the surface of the body making our faces and ears turn red with anger. While blood doesn’t actually boil there is some truth to it. As our nervous system is shifted in the “fight or flight” response our blood pressure increases through a faster heart rate preparing us for action. Since our faces have a high concentration of capillaries and vessels, and the vessels, especially in the cheeks are much wider in diameter than other areas of the body, coupled with the thin skin in the face, permit the redness of the blood to show through in the characteristic “flushing.” This anger reaction shouldn’t be confused with feeling embarrassed or the blushing we see through exercise. The accompanying cues in cluster will tell us which emotional response we are seeing.

Fists clenching is an early sign of aggression.  It shows that the body is ready to fight - even if not literally by punching someone.

Fists clenching is an early sign of aggression. It shows that the body is ready to fight – even if not literally by punching someone.

During aggression we might see the arms show defensive postures by becoming crossed showing a negative emotion, or dropped to the side and clenching. Fists clenching is an important cue to aggression since it indicates the underlying thought process that one is nearing physical action. Other cues in the cluster include finger pointing, overall tensing of the body or extreme body loosening to ready for fighting, tightening of the jaw and lips (called “lip occlusion”), quivering in the lips, frowning, furrowing, or lowering the eyebrows, dilated pupils, squinting of the eyes, crotch displays such as legs open, sneering or flared nostrils.

The technical term for flared nostrils as mentioned before is “nasal wing dilation” and is of particular in the fight and flight response because it tells us that someone is actively oxygenating their bodies in preparation to do something important. Our bodies consume oxygen during work, and we can get our bodies ready by loading up hemoglobin which is the carrier of the oxygen molecule, just in case it’s needed for a condense bout of work. As people get ready to fight their chests can be seen rapidly expanding and contracting as if panting. The body is essentially saying “We’ve probably got a problem on our hands, time to load up on oxygen as we might need to fight or take flight!” Sometimes though, nasal wing dilation is in response to doing anything physical at all, be it to move a heavy sofa or taking to a flight of stairs. Other times, nostrils flare when aroused by a potential mate who is seeking to take up an alluring scent laced with sexual pheromones. However, as mentioned this cue can be very important in certain context as it may provide clues to potentially aggression. School aged children should learn this nonverbal cue early on so as to diffuse aggression by bullies.

Nose flaring signals displeasure and negative thoughts.

Nose flaring or “nasal wing dilation” signals displeasure and negative thoughts. Noses flare because extra oxygen is being consumed to prepare for battle.

It might be counter-intuitive to think that opening the body up and keeping it loose, is a sign of aggression, since it exposing the body to attack, but in this cue cluster, the posture challenges others to attack. The limbs can seem to dangle from the body and the upper torso might begin to sway back and forth, or bob, similar to what a boxer does seeking an angle to attack. Only in this case, it happens much more discretely such that a surprise attack might be possible.

Conversely, the arms and body can become stiff and rigid as they prepare to defend whereas others will visibly start shaking. As a last resort, aggressive individuals may begin expressing the same thoughts over and over again to assert their position in effort to have their opponent back down. Under more extreme cases, people fall back into more primitive displays of aggression such as banging fists against a table, slamming doors, and even throwing objects. Figuratively, the message being advertised is that the table, the door being slammed, or the chair being thrown, will soon be you!

As the person nears aggression they will begin to invade your personal space, sometimes even ‘head-to-head’ and issue verbal challenges and might burst into nervous laughter even though nothing funny has been said. The solution to aggression is to always back away and give the person as much space as possible while showing defensive postures. Nearly all individuals will cease aggressive behaviour given the proper cues and switches, while other times, the only avoidance to physical combat is the flight response. In other words, run!

Aggressive Body Language

The amygdala is in here somewhere!

The amygdala is in here somewhere!

Researchers have defied seven major classes of aggression: predatory, inter-male, fear, irritable, maternal, instrumental (to obtain a goal) and territorial. The amygdala and the hypothalamus, two brain centers, have been centered out as important motivators in aggressive situations. Thankfully, with the potential for such conflict we are given tools in the form of body language that help us gauge aggression in others in order to prevent us from serious injury or death. Since modern humans are primarily vocal, we often ignore some of the cues signifying aggression, but these become very potent as conflict escalates and our verbal language deteriorates to uncontrolled screaming and cussing.

Cues To Indicate Defense

She protects her mid-section with a fig leaf posture.

She protects her mid-section with a fig leaf posture.

When children get scolded by parents they adopt very specific postures. They will bow their head, avoid eye contact by looking up or to the side, and will hunch over making their bodies seem even smaller. Reducing body size is a mechanism that turns off the aggression emotion in the mind of a potential aggressor. As adults, we will adopt similar postures in addition to covering those areas we feel are most likely to be attacked or are the most vulnerable. Our heads will come back and away if aggression is strong, effectively putting distance between us and our attacker. We may also drop our chins to protect us from a blow that might knock us out cold.

Fear or uncertainty which roughly falls into a defensive strategy was covered previously and happens by crossing one ankle around the other. A variation on this is a clenched fist or tightly gripping the arms of a chair which can indicate aggression and restraint. If we feel that an attack is imminent our bodies may become tense or “wired” in effort to become ready to withstand an attack, or mount a counter attack if necessary. We may also collapse downward to cover our throats if we think a swing is nearing and when an attack commences, we cover our face and cower. If we think we can win or when escape is impossible, we draw our fists up and usually swing randomly. Our knees will also come together to protect our groin and our arms brought inward to the center of our body to protect other vital areas. The eyes might also be flicked from side to side in effort to locate possible escape routes.

How To Use Barriers To Your Advantage

Objects can be erected to deflect emotional attacks.

Objects can be erected to deflect emotional attacks.

My wife frequently uses headphones in public places to avoid talking to strangers even if she isn’t playing music into them. If strangers come up to her, she points to her headphones as if to say that she can’t hear them. If she was really interested in a conversation, or minding other people’s business, she could remove them, but her point is that she isn’t. Headphones are therefore a strong message of introversion of which we wish not to be bothered. If a person strongly insists on interacting with her, she takes a long time to remove her headphones and accompanies it with irritated body language. She might even only partially listen to the person who has infringed on her privacy, although this is an advanced technique, before placing the headphones back on.

Now you might think that she’s being rude, but this is far from the case. She, like you, and everyone else, has the right to refuse to speak to whomever we please. We each owe no service to anyone else, especially interactions that were not mutually invited. Lack of eye contact in this case is a big factor in the right to refuse to interact. Dark eye glasses can close people out even more successfully, because it avoids accidental eye contact. Eye glasses make conversations shorter and less productive than one’s that occur when the eyes are exposed. Obviously, if we wish to welcome and continue a conversation or increase its effectiveness, we should promptly remove our sunglasses, even in really sunny conditions, so we might benefit from mutual gaze. When your counterpart wears glasses too, you might however, both agree to keep them on.

Barriers for negatively reasons are most common, but as in the peek-a-boo game that is played by men and women, objects can be used to tease and arouse in courtship. This is the case with “eye hiding”, which happens when a drinking glass, menu, or even people moving about a room temporarily put out of vision our object of affection. It can also happen by slightly turning away, or lowering the eyes coyly. Dropping the eyes out of sight or looking over the shoulder when done by women is particularly seductive. The loss of sight sends us into spells of worry, but when they suddenly reappear it sends our hearts races with relief. Small babies especially enjoy this game, sending them into giggle fits, and adults play along happily. When adults play the game with each other, it is only slightly more sophistication.

How one holds their arms while seated at a table can tell us the degree of acceptance or defensiveness they have toward us or our views. For example, having the arms apart indicates general agreement, having both arms parallel but uncrossed shows partial agreement, and having the arms folded on the table indicates disagreement. In this case, arms are being used as barriers. We have covered ways to break barriers and open those who show closed body language earlier. To reiterate though, we concluded that while it’s possible to open someone by offering them objects such as a drink or reading material to uncross their arms, it is usually best to openly address their concerns.

Improper use of barriers happen to all of us, because we aren’t totally aware or continuously conscious of their hidden meaning. Take a social gathering for example, where nearly everyone will have drinks and snacks on hand. How do we hold them while we stand, what about while we sit? While standing, more times than not, our arms are cocked at ninety degrees keeping our arm parallel to the floor to keep our drink upright preventing it from spilling. Unfortunately, this sends a bad message because it is a partially closed body position since it creates a barrier that isolates our bodies from others. While drinking alcohol can make people more social, having to hold the drink at the chest impedes our ability to use our hands properly and expressively. If you absolutely must drink or you think it is required to fit in with the crowed, then try holding your glass to your side so that you don’t block off the center-line of your body. If a table or bar top is nearby, use it to store your drink and so free your hands to gesture with palms up. While sitting at a table, feel free to put your drink to your flank so that you aren’t talking over it, and your arm, the entire evening. For a lot of people, drinks are crutches, something to hold on to, and as described earlier, are a form of security blanket. If you think you’re ready to “grow up”, try standing free form instead of toting your drink around at your chest. It’s not as easy as it sounds!

Objects as small as pens, but as large as books or newspapers, can be used to indicate division between people and create space between them. Just like the beverage example however, using the pen to write on a piece of paper by crossing the center-line of the body effectively closes it off. If no object is present at all, the barrier can still be formed by leaning on the table with both forearms and putting weight on them. This anchors and locks the barrier into the table. Although it is a closed message, it can be diminished to a degree by leaning forward toward your company. Holding the pen out and away from the body shows the opposite message. It is an indication that someone wishes to “extend” or offer an idea to them, and they wish their idea would cross the center-line of the table and enter into the other person’s ideology. The same sort of casual invasion of space, showing a desire to become connected, happens anytime the center-line cut evenly between two people, is breached. This can happen with reading material or business documents, hands in gesture, hands to touch, the sharing of food and of course love letters.

Conversations in busy places can be shut off completely just by raising a book and beginning to read. Sometimes this isn’t enough, so emphasis needs to be placed on it. We do this by peering rudely over them with an off-putting face and then slowly raising the reading material again. Obviously, this message is only rarely missed or ignored.

If you are the subject of unwanted blocking then begin by reviewing the pattern of communications that has lead to this result. Have you come on too strong? Were your ideas overly political or religious? Have you been too expressive or aggressive? Whatever the case, your best bet is to back-off and use relaxed body language to diffuse whatever anger you might have created. Ease the tension by taking a break and allowing your partner to have some emotional downtime. Try to devise a way to regain common ground, even if it means changing the subject or leaving it entirely to start fresh another day. Whatever you do, don’t bother trying to push your ideas forth too strongly, as they will simply be met with increased resistance. Finally, not everyone who uses barriers do so because they dislike other’s based on personal grounds, rather some just require more space and privacy, even in public.

Objects As Barriers

The chair is employed to maintain distance.

The chair is employed to maintain distance.

How the environment is used by people can provide clues to their inner thoughts and emotions. For example, propping up against the wall indicates that the person is in need of support (or is really tired) which shows that they are incapable of comfort without the assistance the structure affords. Hiding a portion of the body behind a desk also indicates insecurity and we rarely invite commerce onto ourselves without placing a desk between us and our clients because we require the security it provides.

Imagine what it would be like to meeting face-to-face in an empty room. Desks and tables are more than just places to store notes! The “employee’s line” by which customers are forbidden to cross in retail stores has more to do with privacy, power and territoriality than security. What would happen if retailers could freely move into storage rooms and behind the counter, what about enter the kitchen at a dinner? The formalities of the establishment would drop significantly and it would be like being at home, free of boundaries.

The chair is a prop used to shield the body from "attack."

The chair is a prop used to shield the body from “attack.”

Even podiums creates a much needed refuge, a place of security for presenters where the self conscious can be partially out of sight, or even dodge flying tomatoes! Only those that are supremely confident or experienced in front of others will ignore the podium and instead immerse themselves into the embrace of the crowd. Women who wish to quell an advance by men can steer them away by turning a cold shoulder, a barrier, or if possible, moving to the backside of a chair which can be used as a shield. When nervous around women, on the other hand, men can use bar tops to prop up against to protect them from rejection. As you see, objects are sometimes used as crutches and at the same time indicated to us as body language readers that a person is uncomfortable standing by themselves. In other words, it tells us that they are worried that they might suffer an emotional attack so they limit their exposure. People can use chairs, lean against a bar as discussed, a beam, a table, or might simply use objects like mugs or cups, or even pens and utensils which can figuratively represent make-shift weapons. Obviously pens would never be drawn, so to speak, as a weapon, but they still offer a psychologically comforting mechanism.

The Stiff Or Curved Arm

The stiff arm is an obvious signal that approach is unwelcome as it forms a solid barrier around our personal space zone.

The stiff arm is an obvious signal that approach is unwelcome as it forms a solid barrier around our personal space zone.

A more obvious defensive posture is the stiff arm which happens by thrusting the arm forward and away from the body with the palm face vertical in a “stop” type signal. Another defensive posture is the curved arm, a variation of the stiff arm, where the arm is bent and locked at the elbow and thrust outward facing down or horizontally. As a cluster, the stiff arm and curved arm is accompanied by a step backwards to reclaim stolen space, which is the true intention of the stiff arm. Both postures are called “arm-distancing” tactics because the arms are used to control space. When we say “Keeping people at arms length” this is the body language we refer to. The curved arm also creates a closed body position since the arm crosses over the middle of the body. At times, the arm fails to come up any higher than a few inches, or the hand might flip upwards slightly while being held at waist level, however, the message is the same. As the intensity of the approach increases, the hand and arm will rise even further and a person will shift their weight backwards.

Football running backs use the stiff and curved arm to provide a space buffer in order to fend off tackles by keeping the arms of defenders away from their bodies. The space created next to the body, to the inside of the elbow in the curved arm, is reserved so that no one can enter. The curved and stiff arm both serve to deflect a possible attack away from the body or when navigating crowded areas such as airports, amusement parks or nightclubs. Women can also be found doing this too, especially when men get too close for comfort. The signal is a strong indicator that personal space is being violated and the carrier of the message does not want someone to come even an inch closer. Men in dating situations should be particularly aware of this body language and treat it appropriately, back up, and give some space.

Other times, the stiff or curved arm is used to thwart closeness that is not necessarily due to physical threat. Sometimes we keep our arms out just to keep people we don’t like from getting too close. The arms can also indicate how much someone likes or dislikes someone by their proximity to other people. When someone is particularly turned off by someone else they will keep their arms away from them in-so-much as their bodies can maintain enough personal space and don’t need to be thrown in harms way, so to speak, to serve as stiff arms.

The Security Blanket

Playing with a sleeve of cufflink is a leaked gesture because it replaces a full arm cross but still provides the feeling of comfort.

Playing with a sleeve of cufflink is a leaked gesture because it replaces a full arm cross but still provides the feeling of comfort.

As we get older we are taught that certain behaviours and habits are unacceptable. Carrying a security blanket, for example, while acceptable as a toddler is unbecoming in grade school so it is weaned. Perhaps as a by-product of our recent, in evolutionary terms at least, bipedalism, we’ve failed to fully adjust methods of keep our hands busy. Bipedalimsm is the term used to describe walking on two feet which is rare in the animal kingdom. When under pressure, our hands and arms are the first to feel out of place and give away our awkwardness. Even those that spend a lot of time in front of large audiences can still be found with “security blankets”, as it were whose purpose is to keep busy our free appendages.

The cuff link is a common choice for men attending formal affairs because it gives their hands a use instead of dangling awkwardly as they walk. Next time you see a televised awards show watch carefully as a presenter or an award winner make his way up to the stage, he just might show his awkwardness by fingering his cufflink. Reaching across the body in this way is also an abbreviated arm cross since the hands come out in front of the body forming a barrier, in this case a loose loop.

A purse can be used as a shield to protect the torso.  If you want to know how she really feels about you, just measure much she trusts you around her purse.

A purse can be used as a shield to protect the torso. If you want to know how she really feels about you, just measure much she trusts you around her purse.

This type of body language is defined as ‘leaked’ because consciously the person is trying to prevent it from happening, but their conscious mind is only successful at blocking a more obvious gesture by replacing it with one that is slightly less pronounced. The gestures are also considered “masked arm crosses” because they create a barrier-effect protecting the body, but aren’t full blow arm crosses. Other forms of gestures that fall in the same family include holding or clutching a bag, checking the contents of a bag or briefcase where the arms must cross the body, playing with a bracelet, watch or shirt button and holding a drink with both hands. Any sort of motion that allows one hand or arm to cross the center of the body, or where a crutch object is sought that otherwise serves little or no appropriate purpose, qualifies as a security blanket. To those aware of the cue, it is a very easy ‘tell’ to catch, because there really is no purpose for the behaviour aside from tension relief.

What to know if a women trust you? See how she reacts around her handbag! The handbag is a very personal item for women and she uses it as an item of security. When nervous or out of place, she can dive into her bag and checks its contents so as to symbolically connects her to the comforts of home and exempt her from outside interruptions. In other words, while she checks her back, she’s busy, don’t bother her! Handbags give women something to grasp onto and hold especially if they feel particularly self-conscious or insecure and will feel naked without it. On the other hand, if she allows the handbag contents to be viewed by a potential male suitor, or trusts him to guard it, you can bet that she is willing to explore a relationship. Women are personally connected to their handbags!