The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


It had the power to drive me out of my conceptions of existence, out of that shelter each of us makes for himself to creep under in moments of danger, as a tortoise withdraws within its shell. --Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, 1899; see below, Origin)

Gesture. 1. To lift, raise, or flex-forward one or both shoulders in response a. to another person's statement, question, or physical presence; orb. to one's own inner thoughts, feelings, and moods. 2. One of several constituents of the larger shoulder-shrug display.

Usage I: The shoulder-shrug is a universal sign of resignation, uncertainty, and submissiveness. Shrug cues may modify, counteract, or contradict verbal remarks. With the statement, "Yes, I'm sure," e.g., a lifted shoulder suggests, "I'm not so sure." A shrug reveals misleading, ambiguous, or uncertain areas in dialogue and oral testimony, and thus may provide a probing point, i.e., an opportunity to examine anunverbalized belief or opinion.

Usage II: The shrug gesture bears an interesting relationship to the English word, just, as in, "I don't know why I took the money--I just took it." In this sense, "just" conveys a feeling of powerlessness and uncertainty as to motive. The word also connotes "merely," as in "Just a scratch" (Soukhanov 1992:979). These diminutive aspects of the word "just" resonate with the cringing, crouched aspect of the shoulder-shrug cue (see below, Origin).

Anatomy. The trapezius and levator scapulae muscles lift the shoulder blades (scapulas). Trapezius (assisted by pectoralis major, p. minor, and serratus anterior) medially rotates (i.e., ventrally flexes) the shoulders, as well.

Football. On January 25, 1998, in an NBC Sports interview conducted after his team had won Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego, Denver Broncos quarterback, John Elway, shrugged his shoulders and said, "I can't believe it."

Media. Actor James Dean's defensive shrug set his style apart from the stiffer performances of male leads of his time. The contrast between Dean's nonverbal diffidence and Rock Hudson's square-shouldered dominance in the 1956 movie Giant, e.g., is so dramatic it seemed shoulders had been written into the script. But they had not, for Dean's shrug, according to director Elia Kazan, was "natural." Dean cringed all the time. As American Icon author, David Dalton, wrote, "Jimmy's body is a universe where gravitational pull stems from instability; fascination from asymmetrical shifts and awkward physical contortions formed under internal stress" (1984:53).

Observations. 1. Responding to his father's question ("Do you have your lunch money?"), a son's left shoulder lifts slightly as he answers, "Yes." The father replies, "Better make sure." 2. Bowing forward, a finance director peeks around his boss's doorway and lifts his shouldersas he asks, "May I talk to you, sir?" 3. While conversing in a hotel bar, a man and woman flex, pitch, and roll their shoulders flirtatiously over cocktails (see LOVE SIGNALS III).

Origin. The shrug gesture originates from an ancient, protective crouch pattern innervated by paleocircuits designed for flexion withdrawal. The shoulder-shrug complex was originally identified by Charles Darwin in 1872.

Outer space. On July 11, 1996, while orbiting in the Russian spacecraft, Mir, U.S. astronaut Shannon Lucid shrugged her shoulders, tilted her head, and gestured with her palm up as she answered questions about her six-week delay in returning to Earth. "You know," she told NBC'sToday Show, "that's life."

Primatology. Shoulder-shrugging has been seen in South African adult and young adult baboons as a sign of fear and uncertainty, and as a response subsequent to the startle reaction (Hall and DeVore 1972). 

U.S. politics. On September 9, 1998, in Orlando, Florida, President Bill Clinton shrugged his shoulders and gazed-down at a public apology as he said, "I've done my best to be your friend. But I also let you down, and I let my family down, and I let this country down." (Washington Post, September 10, 1998).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. "When a man wishes to show that he cannot do something, or prevent something being done, he often raises with a quick movement both shoulders" (Darwin 1872:264). 2. Pulling in the shoulders is a response to spatial invasion (Sommer 1969). 3. Theshrug is listed in two checklists of universal nonverbal signs: a. as "A fairly sudden raising of both shoulders" (Brannigan and Humphries 1972:60), and b. "Raising both shoulders" (Grant 1969:533). 4. Shrugging the shoulders is a submissive sign in children (McGrew 1972).

Neuro-notes I. As a branchiomeric muscle, upper trapezius is emotionally responsive (i.e., "gut reactive"; see PHARYNGEAL ARCH), and often hard to control by conscious means. Upper trapezius is innervated by the accessory nerve (cranial XI), a special visceral nerve which also feeds into the voice box (or larynx). Thus, shoulder-shrugs and vocal whines may be given at the same time.

Neuro-notes IIMirror neurons: I am unaware of studies that have found links between mirror neurons and shoulder movements, but would agree with David Freedberg's provocative comment: "In principle, however," he writes, "it should be possible to do so [i.e., map the human brain's mirror-neuron areas which decode and respond emotionally to particular gestures--], even in the case of shoulder movements such as this one [pictured in Jean-Michel Basquia's untitled oilslick on paper (1982), depicting an individual's bodily response to fear] (source: Freedberg, David (2009). "Movement, Embodiment, Emotion," in: Dufrenne, T., and A. Taylor (eds.), Cannibalismes Disciplinaires, Quand l'Histoire de l'Art et l'Anthropologie se Rencontrent (Paris: INHA/Musee du Quai Branly), pp. 37-61.).

Watch a second video: YouTube Video: Watch this 20 second demo of shrugging with a real shoulder-shrug at the end.

Photo of elevated right shoulder (note head-tilt toward the raised shoulder, due to contraction of right aspect of upper trapezius muscle; picture credit: unknown)