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What Does Crossing the Legs Mean?

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

Crossed Legs Meaning

We see crossed legs in many situations from both men and women. It's commonly done in a few different ways, sitting and standing.

In general, crossed legs signify anxiety and submission. The variation performed affects how strongly these feelings are implied. Remember that there could be a physical reason for someone to want the comfort of crossing their legs, such as feeling a bit cold.

Sitting with Crossed Legs

Crossing the legs increases the amount of self-contact, which is comforting. This indicates the person could use some comfort, which is why it suggests anxiety.

It also makes a person less mobile. Having the legs crossed prevents someone from getting up as quickly as they otherwise could. This makes the position defensive. They're not about to spring into action.

Crossed legs also take up less space than having the legs spread. Making ourselves look smaller is also submissive.

The degree to which these things apply varies with the leg placement. Let's run through some variations.

Four Variations of Crossed Legs

  1. Ankle on a knee
  2. Ankle-on-ankle
  3. Thighs together
  4. Thighs together and ankle on the calf

1. Ankle on the Knee

In this version, the legs form a triangle with one ankle on top of the other knee.

This version has minimal self-contact, only a few square inches worth. That still counts, though, as self-comforting, if only a little.

It also immobilizes a person a little. The crossed leg isn't firmly in place. Rather than being lifted, the leg can be slid forward off the knee to break the position. Still, the person isn't prepared to move quickly, so it's on the defensive side.

It takes up slightly less floor space than a regular sitting position. That puts it slightly on the submissive end.

This is probably the least submissive and comforting way of crossing the legs.

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2. Ankle-on-Ankle

In this version, the legs are stretched straight—not completely but almost. One ankle is on top of the other.

There's more self-contact in this version than in the previous one. Most of the lower legs are touching, which provides some comfort.

A person in this position is ill-prepared for quick action. It takes a little effort to remove the top ankle, and even then, the legs aren't in a position to stand up.

It takes up more floor space than is necessary, which suggests dominance. Crossing at the ankles reduces the space, which undercuts the leg extension. At best, this neutralizes the dominance implied by the extra space. More likely, I think, it indicates the person's real feelings. They're probably not as relaxed as they want to appear.

The ankle-on-ankle cross with the legs bent or drawn under the seat removes this little contradiction.

3. Thighs Together

This is a commonly seen version of crossing the legs. One thigh is placed on top of the other.

This version contains a lot of self-contact, with the whole length of both thighs touching. This gives it a high rating on the comfort scale.

This is a relaxing position that a person can really sink into, so it also rates high on immobility. It takes more effort to get out of this position than it does for the previous two.

This pose also makes someone look smaller than the previous two. That's another factor that adds to the submissiveness.

Crossing the legs with the thighs together is the most comforting and submissive looking of the commonly seen variations.

Legs crossed at the thigh and the ankle.

Legs crossed at the thigh and the ankle.

4. Thighs Together and Ankle on the Calf

This is a rare version of crossing the legs occasionally seen from women and almost never from men.

It starts like the previous version with one thigh on top of the other, but it continues with the top foot wrapping around the other calf.

It's not hard to see why this variation is uncommon—some people are physically incapable of doing it, and it looks very weak.

This version has the most self-contact possible in a leg cross. It's very comforting. It also keeps a degree of tension in both legs, which provides a mental distraction.

Wrapping the legs like this makes someone highly immobile and gives them an unstable base. They could be pushed off a chair more easily than in any other position.

The person's legs take up as little space as possible in this pose, which makes it very submissive.

This is easily the most comforting and submissive version of crossing the legs.

Standing With Crossed Legs

The standing variations are similar to the sitting ones. We usually see one of two main versions.

We'll take a look at the two crossed positions:

  1. Legs straight and feet together
  2. Weight on one leg and the other foot's toes on the ground

1. Standing With Straight Crossed Legs

This version has the legs straight with one crossed over the other. The feet are touching or very close. This standing posture is most often seen in young teens and kids.

It has lots of self-contact, making it comforting.

It gives a person poor balance and doesn't allow for quick movement. It also takes up less space than a regular stance. Those are two more submissive features.

2. Standing With One Leg Straight and One Bent

In this position, all the weight is on one leg. The other is bent, with only the toes touching the floor.

This version has less self-contact, offers slightly better balance, and takes up a bit more space than the previous one.

This position is interesting because it looks relaxed. However, it has the hallmarks of a comforting, submissive position, so the person assuming it probably isn't entirely at ease.

What About Crossing and Uncrossing the Legs?

Frequent posture shifting changes things a lot. The movement draws attention to the legs.

Women do this more often than men. People notice women's legs more so than men's, so they have more reason to draw attention to them. This probably isn't being done on purpose. It would be worth noticing whose attention the person is trying to get.

Can We Make Reliable Judgments Based On Crossed Legs?

In general, crossed legs reliably signal anxiety and submission. This is safe to assume as long we realize these feelings are usually within a normal range. Crossed legs certainly doesn't mean someone is a nervous wreck or afraid.

As always, remember to consider physical reasons first. The person could be seeking a little comfort because they're cold.

I find the variations with a bit of contradiction to be the most interesting.

The sitting version with ankle-on-ankle and the legs straight, and the standing version with one leg bent to fit the bill. With both of these, the person seems to be trying to indicate they're relaxed. Their position indicates they aren't quite there.

Sources

Comments

Hacicu Bogdan from Cluj-Napoca, Romania on May 22, 2019:

There's a lot to learn from these beautiful explanations and photos. Usually, I do the standing with one leg straight and the other bent and the sitting ankle on ankle which I just noticed right now while writing(haha), but only because it's more comfortable for me. I also think that when you frequently change posture it may be because you're in a hurry.

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