Stupid Question ™
April 18, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why do we cross our legs when we sit? Even people using footstools will cross their feet at the ankles.
A: This is a sadly neglected corner of the nature-vs.-nurture boxing ring. One of the very few books to give it any thought, Stephen Juan’s “The Odd Body 2,” isn’t even distributed in the US. (The Australian author tells me Random House will start reissuing his books here next year.)
Juan boils it down to the basic answer: it’s about comfort, though it’s unclear whether the comfort is physical, social or both.
In general, musings about leg-crossing are anecdotal and selective in what they mean by “leg-crossing.” For example, I couldn’t find any discussion of extended-leg ankle-crossing.
One casual observer claimed to note that the top-most leg corresponds to the person’s handedness (right leg for right-handed people and vice-versa). I myself usually do the opposite. So there.
Physical-comfort explanations tend toward the arcane. I found no one who thought leg-crossing simply stretches the leg muscles a little. Speculations include: it rearranges the hip joint; decreases the curvature of the lower spine; relaxes the internal oblique muscle of the abdominal wall.
The most sensible suggestion is that elevating one leg reduces the blood pressure in the foot, which typically feels good. (Ankles crossed or no, extending the legs certainly reduces blood pressure on the feet, which is why we do it.) But one doctor points out that crossing the legs too much actually increases the foot’s blood pressure.
Meanwhile, the sociologists do us a service in noting leg-crossing is not a universal behavior, being especially rare in Asia (where, incidentally, sitting in chairs is a relatively recent practice).
There is certainly a social element to leg-crossing, which is often viewed as a “classy” way to sit. Some psychologists also claim to find subconscious meanings in the way legs are crossed—for example, grasping the top-most leg tightly indicating stubbornness.
This stuff is mostly speculative, and in any case shouldn’t be confused with an explanation of why we’re crossing our legs in the first place.
Behavioral researcher Desmond Morris has mapped out all sorts of leg-crossings and come up with monkey-tribe-style explanations for them. For example, he claims that sitting with your feet on the floor and ankles crossed is a display of confidence, because you’re relaxed in spite of not being able to spring away if necessary.
Likewise, he says that sitting with the ankle crossed over the knee—the widest leg-crossing possible—is preferred by Midwestern men as a way to show off their genitalia.
Morris often ignores social influences. For example, he notes that American women tend to cross their legs more tightly, at the knees, but fails to realize that it might be a necessary habit due to skirt-wearing.
As for me, I cross my legs in various ways when I’m completely alone. Unless I’m a total freak, it seems reasonable to guess that leg-crossing is a physical comfort that has evolved social meanings.