Silent Communication – Part III

Last month’s column identified some of the non-verbal ways we communicate through how we position ourselves when seated and, in particular, what we do with our legs and feet. This month’s column will continue the discussion but focus on what we silently say with our arms.

If two people are engaged in a discussion and one of them crosses or folds his or her arms, it usually indicates defensiveness or reluctance regarding the current conversation. It is important, though, to not necessarily conclude the assumption of defensiveness or reluctance; it could just be that the person felt cold. If, for example, a priest is speaking to an employee, and the employee suddenly crosses his or her arms, the priest should momentary stop and ponder what he said that could have been interpreted as being aggressive or hostile toward the employee.

The priest could also experiment by changing the subject to a more pleasant one to determine whether the employee would uncross his or her arms. If the employee remains in the same position, the priest could inquire whether the person might be cold. If not, simply ask if the person is bothered by what the priest is saying. If a person crosses his or her arms and also clenches his or her fists, that physical gesture reinforces the notion of defensiveness, even to the point of hostility.

If a person grips the upper arms while crossed or folded it generally indicates insecurity. The gesture is sometimes termed “self hugging.” A person will self-hug when he or she wants to reassure unhappy or unsafe feelings.

Sometimes a person, while standing, will assume the “at ease” position, that is, clasping his or her hands behind the back. In a military setting, a soldier who is in the “at ease” position is in the presence of a superior officer and takes that stance only when invited to by the superior officer. In non-military situations, a person voluntarily assuming the “at ease” position usually indicates confidence or authority. The gesture is signaling that the person can maintain his position in the discussion with his hands figuratively tied behind his back thereby demonstrating his confidence.

Sometimes a pastor may create nervousness on the part of the person to whom he is speaking. There are several gestures made with the arms that may indicate nervousness. If a female holds her purse or handbag in front of her or a male holds papers across his chest, it indicates nervousness and the item acts as a barrier between the two parties. If a person adjusts a watchband, the arm across the chest serves as another barrier against feelings of nervousness.

If a priest offers his guest a drink, and the guest holds the cup or glass in front of his or her body with both hands, the cup or glass is another barrier placed by the person to mask nervousness. If the person is seated and holds the cup or glass with his or her right hand, positioning the cup or glass in front of the left side, the arm crossing the chest is yet another barrier against nervousness.

Finally, touching or scratching an arm with the hand from the opposite side is another barrier protective signal. It is not the touching or scratching that signals nervousness, rather, it is the arm crossing in front of the person’s chest that provides the barrier.

In next month’s column we will travel down the arms to the hands to discover what silent communication the hands provide.

MR. LENELL, C.P.A., Ph.D., is the director for financial and administrative services for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill. Dr. Lenell’s book Income Taxes for Priests Only is published by “Fathers Guide.” He lectures and conducts workshops and does consulting to several dioceses on priests’ taxes, compensation, and retirement planning. Write to Dr. Lenell, c/o
The Priest magazine with questions, or e-mail him at