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.
Variations in Shoulder Shrug Meaning
Let's start looking at the variations usually seen in this gesture. Following this, there will be more on what these differences suggest in the section on dominance or submission.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 other elements of the gesture undercut it.
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.