How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Shoulder body language
The shoulders, although they have limited movement when compared with other parts of the body, can be used to convey various signals.
Holding the shoulders in a raised position requires that the whole weight of the arms are lifted. This takes continued effort, which is supplied if the person is aroused in some way.
Shoulders hunched up, often with arms folded tight or crossed and holding the body, can be a sign that the person is cold (they may be shivering too). This may also be a sign of extreme tension, often from anxiety or fear.
Raising the shoulders and lowering the head protects the neck when the person fears attack (actual or virtual).
curving the shoulders forward happens naturally when arms are folded. When curled forward with the hands down this reduces the width of the body and can thus be a defensive posture or a subconscious desire not to be seen, for example when the person is feeling threatened or when they want to stay 'under cover'.
Pushing the shoulders back forces the chest out and exposes the torso to potential attack. This posture is thus used when the person does not fear attack and may be used as a taunt to demonstrate power.
If the body is pulled back when the shoulders are pulled back, particularly when the person is up against the wall, this can indicate a desire to hide the body and not be seen, or otherwise defensively move it out of harm's way.
Circling the shoulders may be done forwards or backwards, with one or both shoulders. This is often done to exercise a stiff shoulder, which may have been held tensely (and hence may indicate anxiety). This may also be accompanied by rotating or leaning of the neck and other muscle-exercising movements.
This exercising can signal that the person is readying themselves for action and perhaps combat, and hence may be used as a sign of aggression.
When done whilst the other person is talking and it would be polite to listen carefully, this deliberate breaking of protocol can be an insulting signal of power ('You are so unimportant I do not need to bother listening politely').
The classic shrug, with one-off raising and lowering of shoulders usually means 'I don't know!' and may be accompanied with raised eyebrows, down-turned mouth, and hands held to the side, with palms upwards or forwards (showing nothing is being concealed).
Shoulders may not move much in a small or suppressed shrug. Sometimes all you may see is a slight raising of the arms.
A small and quick shrug may send the same signal but be performed subconsciously and thus can indicate uncertainty or lack of understanding.
Shrugging may be associated with lying where a person shrugs rather than speaks, in fear that their words may give themselves away.
A more prolonged and animated shrug can be similar to the circling shoulders that indicate readying for aggression and can thus signal a threat. In a smaller form it may indicate irritation or frustration.
We often carry tension in the shoulders and a person who is truly relaxed will have their shoulders held low, with arms that can move naturally, without jerkiness and swinging free.
When the person leans against a wall, they often contact the wall with their shoulder. This is usually a relaxed pose as galvanizing into physical movement would take more than a little effort, which puts the person in a position vulnerable to attack.
Turning shoulders is a key part of turning away. If a person turns their shoulders whilst still looking at you, it probably means they want to leave (maybe because what you are saying is uncomfortable for them).