The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


Posture1. An akimbo position, in which the palms rest on the hips with the elbows flexed outward, bowed away from the body. 2. Akimbo: "In or into a position in which the hands are on the hips and the elbows are bowed outward: children standing akimbo by the fence" (American Heritage Dictionary [Soukhanov 1992:40]).
Usage I: Hands-on-hips shows that the body is prepared to "take steps" a. to perform, b. to take part in, or c. to take charge of an event, activity, or work assignment. As a nonverbalcue, the posture shows that the body is poised to "step forward" (e.g., a. to carry out a superior's order, b. to discipline or threaten a subordinate, or c. to defend against those who "overstep their bounds").

Usage II: The outward-bowed elbows (in tandem with the upper-arms' abducted position [i.e., held away from the torso]) widen, expand, and visually "enlarge" the upper body, making it look more powerful in size. "With tough dogs, I have learned protective tricks, such as holding my hands high on my waist and not making eye contact. Looking an aggressive dog in the eye is usually perceived as an act of war. . . (Wells 2009:44; see BROADSIDE DISPLAY).

Usage III: In variant thumbs-forward form, hands-on-hips is made with hands in the supinated (i.e., palm up) position of the shoulder-shrug display. This more "effeminate" posture is less apt to signal aggressiveness than to telegraph uncertainty or thoughtfulness. In standard thumbs-backward position, hands-on-hips is made with hands in the more dominant pronated (i.e., palm down) position of the high-stand display. Thus, the latter is a more aggressive posture. (N.B.: In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe wrote that jet pilots avoided using the feminine thumbs-forward posture sometimes adopted by gay men.) 

Origin. Hands-on-hips is an antigravity sign derived from pronated postures of the high-stand display. Resting the hands on the hips "locks in" the expansiveness of the gesture, i.e., as a postural looming sign.

Law enforcement1. "It's pretty hard to tell how people may feel about us as we approach them in the field. Is this going to be a run-of-the-mill check with no problems--or a confrontation? There is a gesture [i.e., hands-on-hips] that people make, though, that helps answer this question. It's produced unconsciously when people are irritated about something and it can be seen from yards away if you're paying attention" (Baile 2000:8; see below, E-Commentary). 2. When I was interrogating a suspect, ". . . I saw he had one hand on his hip. He seemed to want to confess by the presence of other nonverbal indicators and I thought I was making headway. But the gesture was actually helping him not confess. I finally realized what was going on--so I broke his stance by dropping my pen. Shortly after he picked up my (conveniently) dropped pen, he confessed" (Baile 2000:8). 

U.S. politics. Hands-on-hips has been analyzed as a "classic sign of confidence" a. in the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, b. in Woodrow Wilson while lecturing at Columbia University at the turn of the century, and c. in presidential campaign media footage of Walter Mondale in 1984 (Blum 1988). 

E-Commentary I: "I've always been fascinated with the Arms Akimbo gesture and use it all the time while on patrol. I've found that, in situational context, it usually means the person is in a negative state of mind. Thus if an officer can see this, it's a head's up there may be trouble. And I've even caught myself doing it when I'm upset. I've found it quite reliable in determining state of mind, which is important for any law enforcement officer." --Jeff Baile (7/29/00 9:24:45 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary II: "David, in regard to arms akimbo, I have to agree with Baile that, in my experience, it is a territorial-claiming gesture usually present when something is wrong. Many a child has come home to a mother waiting at the door with her arms akimbo. Nothing further need be said: the kid is in trouble. I don't recommend that officers responding to domestic situations stand in doorways with arms akimbo. They are blocking the king's castle, they are being territorial, and it is a hostile statement when defusion is needed instead. On the other hand, I encourage female officers to use arms akimbo more often to establish greater territory, and thus greater authority." --Joe Navarro, Special Agent, FBI (8/7/01 5:46:35 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

RESEARCH REPORTS1. Hands-on-hips was identified as a human "posture type" by anthropologist Gordon Hewes (1957). 2. The psychologist Albert Mehrabian later found that in standing communicators, "arms-akimbo" was used more with disliked than with liked partners (Mehrabian 1969). 3. "The arms-akimbo position is more likely when you are talking to a person you see as having a lower status than your own" (Knapp 1972:101). 4. Arms akimbo, a worldwide gesture, means "Keep away from me" (Morris 1994:4). 5. "This is an unconscious action we perform when we feel anti-social in a social setting. It is observed when sportsmen have just lost a vital point, game or contest" (Morris 1994:4). 6. Hands-on-hips is a Malaysian and Philippine sign of anger and seething rage (Morris 1994). 7. One- and two-handed, stylized versions of the akimbo posture are used by African American girls and women to show anger, disgust, and disagreement (from observations of the author).
Neuro-notes. As a locomotion posture, based on antigravity extension and pronation of the forelimbs, hands-on-hips forms as the limbic system instructs the basal ganglia to prepare our limbs for movement.