While some people employ the soothing relief of the self-touch to calm their nerves, others put their feet in motion — literally — by wiggling and jiggling their lower extremities. These movements often occur at the most inopportune moments, which is usually why they're very noticeable. It's not uncommon to see someone cross her legs and jiggle the top foot around, maybe during a job interview or perhaps during a heated argument at home. That bouncing foot will betray your true emotions every time, even if you've taken great care to project confidence with your other nonverbal gestures.
Rockin' and Rollin'
Rocking back and forth on the feet — from the balls of the feet to the heel and back and forth again, or from side to side, like a rocking ship — is usually interpreted as a comforting measure. This movement mimics the rocking of a baby, and may continue to be a self-comforting motion throughout childhood. When adults become parents and learn to soothe their children by rocking them back and forth, they're reminded of this comforting motion and might start using it when their kids aren't around. You might see adult men and women standing in a long line at the mall, for example, keeping their blood pressure down by rocking from side to side.
Remember, don't be too quick to judge behaviors. Obviously, people are different, and some may balance themselves on their toes simply to while away the time. For people who are normally calm, however, bouncing around in their seat and/or shaking every body part they own is a sure indication that something's up.
Bouncing on the balls of the feet is an action that's difficult to miss, particularly when you're involved in a one-on-one conversation with a spring-soled person. The bounce is a sign of excitement or nervousness, in which case it's another self-comforting measure. Fortunately, the other nonverbal gestures associated with these emotions are different enough that you can almost immediately determine which issue you're dealing with when you come face-to-face with a bouncer. For example:
The nervous toe-bouncer will make little eye contact, possibly hide his hands in his pockets, and use other means of self-comfort, like occasionally rocking back and forth on his feet or crossing his arms tightly in front of himself.
The excited bouncer will make good use of eye contact, smile, and use hand gestures to express his happiness.
Now, there's also a third possibility for foot-bouncing: For some people, it's a habit that just feels good. (That's another reason why it's important to view body language as a pattern of behaviors instead of a series of random events.)
Are You Cross?
Although there's some debate about whether leg-crossing is a nonverbal attempt to hide some sort of message, it's generally believed that most people simply find that crossing their legs while sitting is a comfortable position.
When you cross your legs while you're standing, however, other people might think you're nervous. You've already read that when confronted with danger, animals and people will either make themselves as large as possible in order to scare off an attacker or they may pull themselves in in an attempt to “hide” from an enemy. Crossing the legs while standing is a move that falls into this latter category, even if your main goal is to remain as comfortable as possible while standing for long periods of time. Bottom line: To strike your most confident-looking pose, stand with your legs hip-width apart.
A Foot-Long Message
You know these people: They tap their feet when they sit down. When they cross their legs, the top foot jiggles. When they're laid out on the couch, both feet are wiggling. You want to grab those feet and restrain them — glue them to the floor, tape them to the couch, whatever it takes! What's up with all the jiggling?
There are two possibilities: Jiggling the feet is either a comforting measure (it simply feels good to the jiggler) or it's an indication of anxiety — or both. So if your friend only taps his feet when he's heading out on a date, it's probably just his way of soothing his nerves. But if he taps his feet all the time and doesn't appear to be a particularly nervous person, it's probably a habit, something that he doesn't really think about as he's doing it.
Crossing the legs while sitting is usually done for comfort.
This information comes in handy when you need the truth from someone. Let's say your friend, whose feet could be characterized as two cement blocks — they're usually unmoving, unless he happens to be walking — has sworn up and down that he doesn't know where your leather pants are. He'd never wear cow skin, he claims, and besides, they'd never fit him, as he's several sizes larger than you are. While he's telling you this, he has his legs crossed in the typical male figure-four position, and his top foot is shaking so much, he's holding onto his ankle to make sure that foot doesn't fly off his ankle and hit the TV screen.
Hmm … what kind of information can you glean from this scene? Your normally calm pal appears to be awfully nervous about something. Is it possible he tried those pants on and split their seams? Did he use them to buff his car? Did he sell them on eBay? You may never know for sure, because you can't force him to tell you the truth. However, his foot has already told you that he knows more about the whereabouts of your pants than he's letting on.