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're going to look at two commonly seen variations of the hands behind the back pose. They are only superficially similar, because they give very different impressions.
The standard version that we see most often is a dominant, confident pose. The second version is submissive and suggests insecurity.
Let's start by looking at the components of the standard version and see what impression they give to an onlooker.
Standard Hands Behind Back Pose
Here are the main components of this pose:
- The person is standing up straight with the feet at least shoulder width apart and usually slightly pointed out.
- The shoulders are back and the chest is neutral or expanded.
- The arms are behind the back with one hand in the other.
- The arms are relaxed.
- The hands aren't tightly clasped, just normally touching.
The picture below shows what it looks like.
Standing up straight with the feet fairly wide makes the person look as tall as they can. It's also a strong position for balance.
Having the shoulders back and the chest expanded makes a person look as big as possible. This, along with the feet position, makes the person take up a lot of space which indicates dominance.
Having the arms behind the back offers the front of the body as a target. Someone in this position isn't concerned about what anyone else is going to do to them.
It's important that the arms are relaxed. Although they're behind the back and thus not in a great defensive position, they're still ready to swing around quickly if someone decides to offer a challenge.
Even though the hands are touching, they're only lightly held together. Due to the lack of pressure, this doesn't qualify as a self-comforting gesture. As with the arms, the hands are ready to change position in a split second.
As we can see from the arms and hands, there's a bit of a disguise here. Outwardly, it says the person isn't thinking about being attacked or launching one themselves. But the lack of tension says they're ready to attack or ready to defend against one if needed.
Here's a recap of the most salient features of this gesture:
- It's an open position. The front of the body is exposed, suggesting the person is secure in their environment. They're almost daring others to try something.
- They're comfortable offering this challenge because they're poised to act if necessary.
- There's a lot of confidence on display. In the back of an onlooker's mind, there's probably a nagging suspicion that the person isn't as vulnerable as they look.
Hands Behind Back with a Wrist or Arm Clasp
This is a variation on the hands behind the back pose, and the differences are significant. Let's look at the main components of this variation:
- The person is standing up fairly straight usually with the feet closer together.
- The shoulders are slightly forward and there's usually a noticeable arch in the lower back.
- If done with a wrist clasp, both arms are behind the back.
- If done with an arm clasp, one arm is behind the back but the other is at the side of the body, slightly pulled back.
- There is some arm tension.
The picture below shows the arm clasp variation.
Although the person stands reasonably straight in this position the feet are closer than in the other version, so the person's balance is worse and their perceived size is smaller.
The shoulders being slightly forward also makes someone look a bit smaller.
The arch in the lower back is commonly seen from women when they're emphasizing their feminine shape. This isn't a good look for a man. In either case it's on the submissive end of the scale but, strangely, it's even more noticeable when a man does it, probably because it plays against his natural shape.
When one hand is clasping the other wrist there is an element of self-comfort in the pose, if only a little bit.
When one hand is clasping the other arm the self-comforting element goes up a lot. If you try this position you'll be able to feel it. It keeps your upper body pressed together, partly simulating a hug. It feels quite secure, implying that the person needs that at the moment.
Arm tension is required to maintain both the wrist and arm clasp positions. This suggests they're not ready for sudden action. It's purely submissive. Their focus is on feeling safe and secure.
What stands out the most in this pose is how harmless it looks. Even though it's an open position like the previous one, the impression isn't carefree.
This pose is commonly seen in children and young teens who are uncertain. I remember using this one a lot when I was younger. There's a lot of comfort in having the arms pulled together and feeling one forearm across the back.
Main Differences Between these Arms Behind the Back Poses
Despite the superficial similarities, lumping these two positions together just feels intuitively wrong. I have a feeling that when people see these poses they can sense that they aren't the same. Let's isolate the concrete differences between these poses so we don't confuse them.
- Standing posture: The first is upright and expansive; the second is more slouched and undercut by the lower back arch.
- Foot position: The first offers good balance; the second is weaker.
- Tension: The first is tension-free; the second has tension which would slow the person's reactions.
- Comfort: The first doesn't provide any self-comfort; the second has quite a bit, with the arm clasp variation having the most.
Can We Make Reliable Judgments Based on the Arms Behind the Back Pose?
The standard version of this position can easily be assumed on command. It would be a mistake to assume that someone feels as confident as they look. If I'm feeling a bit out of my element I will sometimes use this pose to snap myself out of it and give the opposite impression to others.
The arms behind the back with the arm clasp is much more reliable. This pose doesn't look powerful so there isn't much reason to artificially assume it. If someone is in this position there's a good chance they really are feeling some insecurity.
As with all body language situations, we don't want to pretend like we know exactly what people are thinking based on an isolated pose or gesture. But understanding the basics of them is a good starting point. A pattern of gestures and actions is much more reliable.
Howard Allen (author) on May 08, 2020:
This is another good reminder to always consider physical reasons for body language first. That's the simplest explanation.
Keith on May 08, 2020:
I'm 68 years of age and have balance issues especially when walking slowly. When i walk with my hands behind my back it helps me keep in balance and feels comfortable.
moprheus on January 17, 2020:
thats how morpheus in the matrix walks, so theres your answer
Howard Allen (author) on January 16, 2020:
That's a good point. I forgot to mention that sometimes a person has a physical reason for certain gestures or poses. That's the simplest explanation for them, and it's a good thing to consider when interpreting all body language.
seaathy on January 15, 2020:
I stand with my hands behind my back and I walk that way. It is because my back hurts and that stance takes off the pressure of back. Great now people are thinking I am ready for a confrontation.
Kathleen Crawford on May 30, 2019:
A particular heroine of mine and the first woman to ever deliver a political address to Congress (1861) Anna E. Dickinson was considered one of the greatest orators of her time. She would used the locked-in arm behind back pose during her speeches. Reporters wrote that when she locked her arm behind her back, look-out because all hell was about to break loose.
Christian on May 24, 2019:
I've seen the first stance being done almost every week day by a manager at the work place.
maven101 from Northern Arizona on November 04, 2018:
Interesting question and an excellent summary...here are my first impressions of that stance...Hands behind the back project confidence, openness, or a soft arrogance...