By Chris Simmons
“Barrier” positions are displays of emotional distancing. Some are planned, overt signs of power intended to reinforce the stiffness of the boss-subordinate relationship. Meeting with your boss while she remains seated behind her executive desk would be such an example. [Note: This contrasts with a more visually-open boss who sits in a chair adjacent to her desk so she is kitty-corner and barrier free].
To display power and emotional distancing while seated, Americans – especially men, will sit in the “Figure-Four” pose.
Very different barrier positions are seen in reactive body gestures that demonstrate either a lack of power, disengagement from the speaker, or increased tension/hostility.
Known as the fig-leaf, the disempowerment pose occurs when an individual covers their groin with their clasped hands. Understandably, it is a major display of submission. Interestingly, you will also see this stance at funerals and memorial services. In this context, it displays emotional loss and a subconscious demonstration of man’s subjection to death. Note: you will also often see this stance in staged photos wherein the subject(s) didn’t know where to put their hands.
The most commonly seen and misunderstood barrier position is crossed arms. It can indicate the person is cold, disengaging from the ongoing discussion, or becoming antagonized. To distinguish between the latter two stances, look for signs of tension. A puffed up chest, tense arms, or fingers clenched into fists or around the arms reveal anger. In contrast, a person who is simply disengaging will be relaxed, as they will likely be disinterested, skeptical, or otherwise uncaring regarding this particular issue/person.
Similarly, an agitated person who is seated may wrap his/her ankles around the legs of a chair, “locking” or anchoring themselves down. The use of this barrier signals physical restraint, as the individual is taking measures to keep from springing out of their seat.