Howard has had a longtime interest in psychology and human behavior and enjoys digging into the reasons why we do the things we do.
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 feeling are implied. Remember that there could be a physical reason for someone to want the comfort of crossing the legs, such as feeling a bit cold.
As for the sitting variations, we'll look at crossed legs with:
- an ankle on a knee,
- ankle on ankle,
- thighs together,
- and thighs together and ankle on the calf.
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.
Ankle on the Knee
In this version, the legs form a triangle with one ankle on top of the other knee.
There's minimal self-contact in this version, 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 having to be 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.
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 position to stand up.
It takes up more floor space than is necessary, which suggests dominance, but this isn't the end of it. 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.
This is a commonly seen version of crossing the legs. One thigh is placed on top of the other.
There's a lot of self-contact in this version, 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.
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Thighs Together and Ankle on the Calf
Occasionally seen from women and almost never from men, this is a rare version of crossing the legs.
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 easier than they could 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 crossed positions with:
- the legs straight and feet together.
- the weight on one leg and the other foot's toes on the ground.
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 from 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. That's two more submissive features.
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 completely 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 signals some 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 little contradiction in them to be the most interesting.
The sitting version with ankle on ankle and the legs straight, and the standing version with one leg bent 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.
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.