Body language---cupping hands under another's elbows?
March 30, 2010 3:04 PM   Subscribe

body language--placing hands under another's elbows

I'm wondering what is the interpretation when one person cups both their hands under another's elbows? I am a kinesthetic, physically expressive woman who recently did this to convey reassurance and affection, and to command attention as I was saying something serious and heart-felt to the other person, a man who is a friend. I'm familiar with this movement and these feelings, as "hands-under-elbows" was often used in my family. But now I am wondering how the feelings I intended to convey were interpreted by the other person?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (36 answers total)
I'm confused about your description of this gesture. I know you're anonymous, but could you possibly get in touch with jessamyn to clarify what you're asking about?

What I think I'm reading is this: You're standing directly across from somebody, face-to-face. The other person has his/her arms folded, with elbows bent naturally in front of his/her body. You extend your hands, palms up, and grab the other person's elbows. Is this right?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:09 PM on March 30, 2010

I've never seen it, much less had it happen to me. If you did that to me, I'd be weirded out. Not enough to scare me away by itself, but enough for me to try to figure out what you were doing.
posted by theichibun at 3:09 PM on March 30, 2010

That's a little strange. He's facing you, arms at his sides?
posted by fixedgear at 3:12 PM on March 30, 2010

I interpret the move the same way The Winsome Parker Lewis describes, above. Assume we knew each other well and I was comfortable with you touching me (not a given, for me anyway, even if we were friends), I would interpret this as an attention getter. The same way you might put a hand on someone's shoulder to pull them in, but less aggressive. I would view it as adding emphasis, without being excessively forceful. It, too me, has the air of being not-too-different then a hand placed on the forearm.
posted by bunnycup at 3:13 PM on March 30, 2010

The thing that I am thinking of is if you were behind this friend. His arms are at his side or his arms are somehow bent and from behind you cusp his elbows. I've seen this before --- akin to touching on the backs of shoulders or the triceps. But to me it's a very intimate, personal gesture I'd only feel comfortable receiving from my husband or someone I'm really, really, really close to.
posted by zizzle at 3:15 PM on March 30, 2010

I get what gesture you're talking about, and I agree with you that in normal circumstances it would be seen as a sign of encouragement. Personally, I don't like it when anyone touches me, so while I would get what you're trying to convey, I'd still be a little skeeved. It's a personal preference though, so it's hard to say for your specific situation.
posted by Think_Long at 3:24 PM on March 30, 2010

In my experience, dudes interpret everything as romantic interest, unless of course the woman is really trying to get a guy's attention, in which case, he's totally oblivious.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:25 PM on March 30, 2010 [27 favorites]

I think this move would convey an awful lot of intimacy. If you were facing the person it would necessitate getting your face pretty close to his, possibly suggesting a kiss. If you were behind him it would sort of feel like you were trying to "steer" him, which could be taken poorly by someone who is the independent sort. In general though, it is unfamiliar enough to be confusing and possibly off-putting. I think you could probably just explain to this guy that your family uses this gesture, and you didn't realize it was uncommon until after the fact.
posted by vytae at 3:29 PM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Cupping anything is an incredibly intimate gesture.
posted by sageleaf at 3:39 PM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can't imagine a circumstance where having my elbows cupped would be anything other than unnerving.
posted by lore at 3:53 PM on March 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I think the normal physical-touching way of commanding attention while demonstrating concern and affection would be to put your hands firmly but gently on someone's shoulders while smiling at them. Even then, it's a gesture I would only expect from a very close friend.
posted by lore at 3:55 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Controlling a person's elbow is a pretty well known initial martial arts tactic (link to 1 meg .pdf file), as it's the opening to various arm bars and elbow locks. If I felt you or anyone I wasn't physically intimate with regularly "cupping my elbows," I might take some counter-offensive action, immediately, and sort out your ideas after.
posted by paulsc at 3:58 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Controlling a person's elbow is a pretty well known initial martial arts tactic (link to 1 meg .pdf file), as it's the opening to various arm bars and elbow locks. If I felt you or anyone I wasn't physically intimate with regularly "cupping my elbows," I might take some counter-offensive action, immediately, and sort out your ideas after.

. . . hopefully there is an ocean of context between 'gentle encouragement' and 'possible threat'
posted by Think_Long at 4:08 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My interpretation would be to feel either totally creeped out or that I was being patronized (depending on who was cupping me...ugh.)
posted by meerkatty at 4:16 PM on March 30, 2010

I would be very weirded out. I know that I would back up and wonder what the heck you were trying to do. It is an aggressive move to me.
posted by JayRwv at 4:17 PM on March 30, 2010

I would imagine it would depend a lot on your (and your friend's) cultural background and past experiences. Personally I would agree with the people who've said they would be disturbed by this gesture, but then again not only have I never seen it done, but I'm also not very comfortable with being touched in general (and if you were my friend, I'd think that you would know this well enough to not touch my elbows - or if you did do so, I'd suppose you were deliberately trying to get my goat). If the two of you are more generally okay with touching each other, or if this type of touching is more common where you live, then it probably wouldn't seem like that big of a deal.

I can't say that I've ever seen anybody cup someone's elbows, though. Was there something about your friend's reaction that made you uncertain enough to ask this question?
posted by DingoMutt at 4:43 PM on March 30, 2010

We seem to have a lot of non-touchers here. I am definitely a toucher in the course of conversations with acquaintances and friends and comfortable being a touchee with same. As noted, context is everything, but basic shoulder taps or arm or shoulder blade touches by strangers don't raise flags for me, either, so I'm likely to use them in return (especially if the alternative is to push by very rudely or it's too loud to speak instead). Just giving you the calibration.

Imagining this, I figure your hands are wrapped around from the front? So your fingers are behind the elbow and your thumbs are on the forearm or the bend of the elbow? To me, this is exactly as you say: it provides emphasis by making the person focus on you, encourages direct eye contact to underline the sincerity of what you're saying. BUT it does put you very much inside the North American etc. personal space boundary. In other words, elbows aren't intimate but the degree of face to face proximity might be.

Since you're friends already, is it worth saying 'I get the feeling I intruded on your personal space the other day, and I'm sorry -- I just really wanted to emphasize my point' and go from there?
posted by kypling at 5:36 PM on March 30, 2010

I know what you're talking about. I have done this and have had it done to me. In my experience, it has conveyed intent of sincerity and seriousness, a "this is important and listen to me" sentiment.

However, are you asking this question out of pure curiosity? If the cupped party was offended and expressed so, then the opinions of 1000 MetaFites* do not matter. If you are just wondering, then I have already answered your question, and will add that the gesture becomes much more meaningful when you're sure the other party will understand its intent.

*and even OVER 9000!!!! MetaFites
posted by opossumnus at 5:45 PM on March 30, 2010

Yeah, I have no idea what gesture you're describing and have thus probably never seen it done. That said, I can guarantee that I would either find it weird and uncomfortable or really hot depending on whether I was attracted to you or not, regardless of how you intended it.
posted by Justinian at 5:47 PM on March 30, 2010

This is similar to the traditional gesture of the Sign of Peace in the Roman Catholic liturgy. As to the level of intimacy... it's no accident that it's historically called the "Kiss of Peace".
The two persons stand facing each other. The one who is to receive the kiss makes a medium bow. Then the one who gives it lays his hands on the shoulders of the other; the receiver clasps the arms of the other, holding them a the elbows. Each bows the hear forward, so that the left cheeks of the two persons almost touch. The one who gives the kiss says Pax tecum. The other answers Et cum spiritu tuo. Then they withdraw a little and stand again with joined hands facing each other, and both make a medium bow. (Fortescue, O'Connell, Reid, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, p. 50).
Outside the liturgy, I'd be a bit unnerved by this from someone I didn't know well.
posted by Jahaza at 6:01 PM on March 30, 2010

I am a touch-me-not. However. Depe nding in my relationship or hoped for relationship with the person, It would either be some sort of intimate signal or I would stop it before it came to fruition.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:21 PM on March 30, 2010

If someone were to grab my elbow or forearm, I'd see it as an attempt to lead or control, not simply as wanting my attention. Touching the upper arm or the shoulder, lightly, would be the way to announce your presence (when approaching someone talking), or to request (demand gently) attention while you are talking.

If I were sitting and my hands were on a table or on my lap, touching the wrist or hand would be the same as upper arm.

Anyway for me the forearm grab is controlling, and would be an insult from most, but a correction from about three people (not necessarily intimates) that I might give that power at times.
posted by Some1 at 6:29 PM on March 30, 2010

I've only seen this done between women who are very close friends, generally preceded by an affectionate hug; usually one or both are doing it as sort of a lingering hug gesture. I think if you did indeed use it to "command attention" (even if you did so affectionately) from a male who is not related or very close to you, it's bound to get misinterpreted.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 6:33 PM on March 30, 2010

Perhaps I'm visualizing incorrectly, but if Winsome has the correct idea, then I think it would make me uncomfortable. For a couple of reasons; it seems very intimate or very controlling, depending on a person's trigger, and you would be way, way inside my personal space boundary.

But again, maybe I'm thinking of it incorrectly. I'm not exactly sure what you mean by your description.
posted by dejah420 at 6:54 PM on March 30, 2010

Perhaps overly intimate as others are suggesting, but if someone (with whom I was already physically at ease with, etc, etc) did this to me, I'd be touched by the sincerity and intimacy implicit in it. I'd also really (subconsciously, perhaps) appreciate the uncommonness of the gesture, and perhaps consider it even more intimate because of this. After all, who thinks to cup elbows, or use other kinds of caring touch like this, but a close friend or lover? So, as a man having his elbows cupped by a woman, I might assume (subconsciously again?) that you were implicitly hitting on me, even though your message was otherwise.
posted by soviet sleepover at 7:16 PM on March 30, 2010

FYI, Jahaza, in my experience of Catholic churches in the US and Australia in the last 20 years, the Sign Of Peace is invariably practiced as a handshake. You'd freak the hell out of anyone I know if you tried that move.
posted by jacalata at 7:23 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am a kinesthetic, physically expressive woman who finds the idea of someone cupping my elbows anything but reassuring. It would get my attention -- it would get my attention so much that I'd probably have very little attention left to listen to what the elbow cupper was was telling me.

I have no idea if you were cupping the elbows from behind, from in front, while the person's arms were crossed, but these all sound awkward. Additionally, if your male friend was to cup your elbows back, I imagine he would be coming close to cupping your breasts from underneath. Perhaps that's what he thought about when you cupped his elbows.
posted by yohko at 8:52 PM on March 30, 2010

I'm having a hard time picturing exactly what you're talking about. If it's like The Winsome Parker Lewis described, that seems a bit unnerving. At any rate, it's not a physical expression I know and would understand immediately. If someone had their arms down at their sides and you embraced/grasped their elbows with your hands, however, that seems like a familiar gesture to me, and I'd interpret it is as encouragement that comes from a genuinely caring place with a dash of "buck up, little camper."
posted by katemcd at 8:54 PM on March 30, 2010

Indeed, I know that, jacalata.

However, I was looking for one possible cultural precedent for the gesture, a gesture in which you actually frequently place your hands on another's elbows and that also aptly describes it's intimacy, I think.

In fact, this happens in Roman Catholic churches I go to all the time... of course the liturgy in the churches I go to frequently looks like this.

Here's a photo of the gesture from a Chicago ordination in 2008.

posted by Jahaza at 10:01 PM on March 30, 2010

Those photos really clear it up. Two would make me feel like you were going to kiss me or tell me a secret. One might be nice or intrusive, depending.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:29 PM on March 30, 2010

Creepy. Stop touching people.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:31 AM on March 31, 2010

The move sounds like something you'd execute in The Sims.

Not sure if this is related, but I remember reading in body language books that touching someone else's elbow can be particularly disarming (relative to other areas), and can endear you to them more than those who don't. Apparently it has partly to do with the fact that it's less intimate than other body parts.

But anything more than a couple seconds, or touching below or above the elbow can have negative results. Or so they say.

I just could never quite understand how you would actually go about touching an elbow other than by shaking with the other hand, or gently directing them somwhere.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:46 AM on March 31, 2010

I agree with two things: lots of non-touchers here, from the sound of it, but that is a weird bizarro touch I have seldom seen, and would make some think of how best to take you down if you suddenly tried to control their arms.
posted by rahnefan at 5:06 AM on March 31, 2010

I think the only time I touch just about anyone's elbow is when, as TheSecretDecoderRing says, I'm "gently directing them somwhere." When I move through a crowded room, a bar, perhaps, where there's too much noise to hear my "excuse me," I use elbow touches to let folks know I want them to move aside a little so I can pass.

But no cupping. I, like others, am having a hard time imagining such a thing.
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:52 AM on March 31, 2010

The way I'm visualizing this - and really any kind of touch on both sides of my body at once - would put you much, much too close to me for me to concentrate on anything other than "OMG SHE'S IN MY SPACE." And I'd back the hell away unless you either had prior clearance to be up in my business or one of the very rare people who don't set off any of my myriad triggers.

But I think mostly what this thread is demonstrating is that there's a whole range of possible responses to any touch at all, and the only person who can really answer your question is the guy you were talking to.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:22 AM on March 31, 2010

But now I am wondering how the feelings I intended to convey were interpreted by the other person?

By the way, I would probably see it as a bit aggressive, but obviously just an attention getting gesture.

What would seem really odd is if the person who cupped my elbows on Tuesday approached me on Friday to say that they didn't mean to offend with it and apologizing if I was uncomfortable.

I'd be like "You mean you spent several days thinking about this?"

posted by General Tonic at 7:05 AM on March 31, 2010

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