What Does the Shoulder Shrug Mean?

Updated on May 15, 2019
Howard Allen profile image

Howard has had a longtime interest in psychology and human behavior and enjoys digging into the reasons why we do the things we do.

The shoulder shrug is probably among the most commonly seen gestures. We see it from those around us all the time. You probably do it regularly yourself, too, as do I.

In the basic shrug, the head is slightly tilted, the shoulders are raised, the upper arms are held slightly away from the body, the forearms are pointed outward, and the palms are facing up.

From experience, and from the context that others use it in, you probably have a general idea of what it means. Shrugging the shoulders signals helplessness or innocence.

It seems like the person is saying:

  • “I don't know.”
  • “I can't do anything about it.”
  • “What's it got to do with me?”
  • “It's not my fault.”

We're going to take a deeper look at this movement, including:

  • Shoulder position.
  • Variations in head position.
  • Variations in arm position.
  • Eyebrow position.
  • How dominant or submissive it is.
  • When it's likely to be seen.

Let's start looking at the variations. Following this, there will be more on what these differences suggest in the section on dominance or submission.

A shrug with tilted head, eyebrows raised, and arms just away from the body.
A shrug with tilted head, eyebrows raised, and arms just away from the body.

Shoulder Movement

This is the bedrock of the gesture. Everything else can vary, but for the movement to qualify as a shrug, the shoulders must go up.

The speed of it can vary, though. Sometimes it's a quick up and down; other times it's slower with a pause at the top.

Variations in Head Position

The shrug is almost always accompanied by a head cant. This slight tilting of the head contributes to the overall message of the shrug.

Variations in Arm Position

The upper arms can be anywhere from touching the sides of the body to flared at about a 45 degree angle. I've seen pictures where shrugging people hold their arms higher than this, but it looks really artificial. I've never seen someone do that spontaneously.

The forearms can be anywhere from in front of the body to flared, matching the angle of the upper arms.

Eyebrow Position

The shrug can be performed with or without raised eyebrows, but more often with and very seldom with them lowered.

Is Shrugging Dominant or Submissive?

Shrugging the shoulders falls on the submissive end of the spectrum. On a scale of 1–10, with 1 being submissive and 10 being dominant, I estimate it at about a 3 depending on the variation.

Let's go through the implications of each component.

Shoulder Movement

This is the foundation of the gesture and, thus, the main reason it's submissive.

When someone gets startled, they instinctively raise their shoulders to protect their neck and head. So, the basis of the shrug is a defensive reaction. We're protecting ourselves, not likely from something physical, but from whatever imposition or charge is being put to us.

Head Position

Head canting is also a submissive gesture. It exposes the neck, a vulnerable part of the body, sending the message that you're no threat. The position is also reminiscent of resting the head on someone else for comfort.

Lowering the head is also submissive, giving the impression we're sorry for something.

When the head is kept straight during the shrug, it reduces the submissiveness.

Arm Position

The closer the arms are to the body, the more submissive the position is. A shrug with the upper arms against the sides and the forearms in front of the body looks the weakest. It looks like the person feels ashamed or remorseful, and is asking you to take pity on them.

When the arms are spread wide it looks more defiant, but this is a false impression as the elements of the gesture undercut it.

Eyebrow Position

Raising the eyebrows adds to the submissive impression. When we recognize someone, we often flash our eyebrows to acknowledge them in a friendly way. It also makes us look interested during the conversation. Lowering the brows looks confrontational.

It's very natural to raise the eyebrows during a shrug, which complements the other parts of the movement.

When Do We See Shoulder Shrugging?

We see it everywhere, and for good reason. It's really useful.

  • Want to refuse a favor?
  • Being asked something that's above your pay grade?
  • Caught at the scene of a misadventure?
  • Getting pestered with irrelevant information?

The shrug is there for you. It adds politeness to a refusal, an apology to ignorance, sincerity to a denial, and helplessness to a dismissal.

Another time we see it is during conversation as a turn ending signal. When the speaker says their last sentence, they might shrug, as if to say, “I don't know. What do you think?”. The other person knows it's time for them to say something.

Can We Make Reliable Judgments on the Shoulder Shrug?

The central message of the shrug is powerlessness. This usually matches what the person is saying, and the context. It certainly seems genuine in these cases.

At the same time, the shrug is an easy gesture to make consciously. If someone wants to appear candid or look like their hands are tied, they could easily add shrugs to their plea. It would be a mistake to always take it at face value.

Sometimes people unconsciously shrug when they're being aggressive or hostile. This tells us they aren't as committed to a confrontation as they want us to think. When we're trying to interpret body language, we're really looking for the unconscious gestures. The ones that contradict a person's words are obviously the most telling.

Knowing the effect of the components could come in handy if you want to create a certain impression.

The most submissive shrug has the head tilted and slightly lowered, raised eyebrows, and arms and hands in front of the body.

The least submissive shrug has the head straight, lowered eyebrows, and arms and hands away from the body.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)