Social Question

Haleth's avatar

Body language question: What does touching the upper arm mean?

Asked by Haleth (19518points) February 16th, 2010

I’ve seen this in a lot of different contexts, and it seems pretty ambiguous. If you’re in a conversation with someone, you lean in slightly and briefly touch the outside of their upper arm for emphasis. I use this often on dates to show that I’m interested in the person and subtly bring the conversation closer. One of my friends pats people on the upper arm in a casual, friendly way- basically, saying “Hey, buddy!”

I had a conversation today where the person patted me on the arm about ten times in as many minutes. I manage a small store, and two of the employees from the corporate office were here today to give us a few pointers. They’re both friendly, personable, and seem very competent. I walked around the store with one of them talking about changes we could make, asking questions and giving suggestions. His body language was very dynamic- he walked around quickly and made big gestures, often touching my upper arm with one hand while pointing something out with the other, or putting a hand on my shoulder as we walked.

I noticed that he didn’t do this very much when he talked with the other employee from corporate. They’ve worked together longer, so I’m thinking that maybe? he was trying to build rapport with me and look confident, but he already has a good working relationship with his co-worker.

Some people in work situations intentionally use body language to their advantage, to show confidence and initiative. But I’m also female and lower in the company’s hierarchy, and I’m worried that might be part of it. I don’t want someone to feel like they have permission to touch me just because I’m a girl. The guy’s personality didn’t make me think that- he was very friendly and outgoing- I just want to figure out why he was touching me all the time, and nobody else. What are your guesses?

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11 Answers

MrGV's avatar

From what I know I would say it’s a flirtatious gesture.

Captain_Fantasy's avatar

It’s flirting but doesn’t mean they want to roll in the hay.
I don’t like it when people do it at work. It usually means they want me to do something for them, and not to have a cocktail after work with them.

onesecondregrets's avatar

I do it with co-workers, far more with the women than the men. I have to feel especially safe with a guy at work to do it (considering most are at least 20 years older than I am) I do it though to let them know that I am listening, or that I care when they speak or if someone says something that shows low self esteem, or if we’re just farting around and they make a joke. If you didn’t feel any threatening vibes it was probably just an innocent flirting gesture.

wundayatta's avatar

It can be considered sexual harassment. According to the definition I was given where I work, sexual harassment is basically any unwanted behavior that a woman doesn’t like. However, since touching is clearly invading someone’s personal space, even if it is flirtatious, it is inappropriate between colleagues.

You should have a professional relationship, not a personal relationship at work. Touching the upper arm is in the personal realm. The guy may or may not know what he is doing. However, it is likely he is testing your boundaries. If you don’t say anything, he will know he has more power over you than he might otherwise have. He may press his advantage and try to move you into even more intimate contact, the next time he shows up—or he may find excuses to contact you much more often.

That’s the worst case scenario. It could also simply be that he is unaware of what he is doing or that it is inappropriate. I still wouldn’t trust him. Not until I had a lot more experience with him. You might just take him aside and tell him not to do that any more because it bothers you and it is inappropriate in the workplace, and you want to be on good working terms with him. Just a quiet word.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It means you want to get closer to their heart (I’m making this up)

Haleth's avatar

@wundayatta Thanks, that’s helpful. Judging from the tone of the conversation, I don’t think he was trying to intimidate me or have power over me. He probably meant it as innocent flirting, but that’s not appropriate for work. He left something at the store today and called back to say he’d be in tomorrow to pick it up. I can have a quick talk with him then.

Trillian's avatar

I remember from somewhere that anything above the elbow is considered intimate.

wundayatta's avatar

@Haleth Do you think that leaving that object was an accident? Is it even in your store?

As to power relations—that’s a lot more subtle. The thing is, that by treating you less seriously (by feeling free to flirt with you), he is establishing himself as dominant. If you let him get away with it, then he can start asking you to do more and more things that really aren’t your job. It will build slowly, but in the end it will be untenable for you.

I’m glad you’re going to talk to him. That will tell him you know what’s going on and you won’t put up with it. It might actually give you a leg up if you can pull it off without him feeling like he’s been put down. Good luck.

Oh, and you might want to check into corporate harassment policies.

PhillyCheese's avatar

It depends on who you do it to.

If a male does it to another male, it represents dominance and confidence. It shows that he is in control of the situation because he is not afraid to break any barriers.

If a male does it to a female, that is a general sign of interest. It’s involuntary for most.

TheJoker's avatar

It sounds like a combination of the two things. He is probably a dynamic person, as you say, & consequently uses very positive bodylanguage to control the situation & conversation. Flirting is just another aspect of communication, perhaps he felt you would be more engaged if he flirted a little. Touching the upper arm is a harmless way of making contact… remember from the film hitch… “watch your hand placement, too high says, ‘I just wanna be friends,’ too low says, ‘I just wanna grab some ass.’

wundayatta's avatar

Touching on the arm is certainly flirting—just look at these google search hits. It is certainly not appropriate in the work place if the woman does not want to be flirted with.

It is an effort to establish dominance the research shows, according to this article.

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