Much like other mammals, a significant part of how people communicate is through unspoken interactions and behaviors.

Using our body language and behavior, you can ‘sync up’ with the other persona and engage in meaningful communication. From catching up with an old friend to a serious meeting with a supervisor, social cues provide insight into what the other person thinks and feels. As an integral part of every interaction with an average person, anything from your tone of voice to how you stand can make a lasting impact.

This article covers the essential information you need to know about social cues. From what these unspoken communication tools are to why they’re important. We also offer examples of real-world social cues and insight into why some people may have difficulty comprehending wordless communication. Read on now to find out more:

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What are social cues?

If you think about communicating with others, whether in the office, at a party, or home with your family, the first thing you likely think of is the words that come out of your mouth. While verbal communication is vital in conversing with others, a social cue is a nonverbal language that can influence a conversation’s feel, atmosphere, and outcome. For example, the exact words said tensely and aggressively can have a very different impact than words spoken sympathetically.

Social cues cover various non-verbal languages integral to communicating with others. Anything from your posture and the tension in how you stand or sit to whether you frown or smile can significantly affect how you make others feel and the impression you give. These cues can indicate whether you’re engaged with a conversation or ‘checking out’ and provide valuable feedback to your social connections about how you feel about your communication.

Why are social cues important?

Social cues are vital as they provide depth and nuance to conversations that cannot be conveyed through words alone. This concept of greater social depth is part of why many people have adapted how they talk online to create a new form of digital non-verbal communication, without the ability to develop social cues, using emoticons, tone of voice, and styles of writing act as a substitute for facial expressions, physical behavior, and eye contact. This practice shows how important unspoken cues are to communicating politely, effectively, and within typical social conventions.

Social cues are something that many people develop naturally as they grow. Young children learn social cues by observing parents, watching children’s television, and through parallel play, helping them to communicate effectively with their friends and family. As children learn to communicate non-verbally before they develop strong language skills, social cues are important as they are some of the first identifiers of how other people feel, whether they are engaged, and the nature of the conversation.

How do you read social cues?

In part, the ability to read social cues evolves naturally over time. Some parts of social cues are learned, through teaching, observing, and participating in the communication. Other elements of social cues are intuitive and natural as part of children’s development. For instance, research suggests that social cues are learned through interaction. Those social cues develop with early word learning as they develop cognitive processes.

Reading social cues as an adult requires observation and understanding. Many social cues we notice subconsciously, without the need to engage our brains directly to understand a person’s intent or feelings as part of a conversation. For example, when face to face with someone, you would consider their body language, if they are making eye contact, and their tone of voice to identify whether they were upset, angry, bored, or excited. Part of the reason video communication, such as Facetime or videoconferencing in the workplace, is a popular choice for many people is to reinforce the ability to see these social cues and have a ‘natural conversation’ even at a distance.

What are examples of common social cues?

Social cues can be subtle, hardly noticeable, or immediately identifiable when talking to someone. As such, it’s important to understand some of the most common social cues you may identify. While sometimes you may subconsciously pick up on attitude or behavior without understanding the exact origin of that feeling, it’s helpful to know which social cues are typically interpreted in varying ways. Some examples of common social cues include:

Making eye contact

Eye contact is one of the most significant and obvious nonverbal cues. A person engaged in a conversation or agreement with you will likely maintain steady eye contact, while someone who feels uncomfortable or disengaged may struggle to do so. However, it’s worth considering that eye contact is problematic for many individuals, whether due to conditions such as autism or because of different cultural norms.

Crossing or folding arms

Crossing or folding your arms is a key signal that suggests specific emotion, particularly when combined with a tone of voice and posture. For instance, someone who feels defensive may cross their arms and speak harsher than someone who crosses their arms because it is a comfortable way of standing.

Facing toward or away from someone

Subconsciously, our body language can provide key insight into how we feel about a social situation. If someone is leaning toward a conversation, it can suggest they are enthusiastic and engaged. A person angling themselves away may be looking to move away from the conversation or showing signs they don’t want to engage further.

Posture and relaxation

Your posture and how you hold yourself can indicate your feelings. For example, you’re far more likely to be tense and hunched if you’re upset and angry. An open and looser relaxed posture may be a more common sight if you’re comfortable and happy to talk.

Distance and proximity

How close you get to someone can be a key indicator of whether or not you’d like to be engaged in conversation with someone. While some people prefer wider personal space than others, most people will come closer to engage in intimate chat. People moving further away may try to extricate themselves from the conversation by reducing proximity.

Smiling, frowning, and other facial expressions

The expression on your face says a lot about how you’re feeling at the moment. Smiling and laughing, for example, is a positive indicator that you’re enjoying yourself and the conversation. Frowning or even a blank, bored expression can suggest you’re not enjoying socialization or that it is a heated or tense conversation. It’s worth noting that researchers have found that fake and genuine smiles look different. Depending on their perception, this may be something your conversational partner picks up on.

Mirroring behavior

Mirroring the behavior of the person you’re talking to is a social cue that we nearly always perform without thinking. For instance, if the person you’re talking to sits with their legs crossed, you may mimic that behavior to show you’re engaged. Mirroring applies to anything from non-verbal facial expressions to how we match the tone or even the way of talking of the person we’re speaking with.

Yawning, sighing, and disconnecting

Many social cues are signs of engagement or acknowledgment of the person you’re speaking to. However, people may also pick up on less flattering cues from you if you aren’t engaged, whether you’re bored, tired, or simply struggling to concentrate on your conversation. For instance, if you’re finding it hard to hold back your yawns, this can send negative cues to the person you’re talking with. Even if you think you’re maintaining a good presence, a blank face or watering eyes can suggest you’re less than engaged.

Wandering attention

One of the biggest social cues your parents will probably warn you about when you’re younger is not paying attention to the conversation. Whether actively listening or completely disengaged, wandering eyes and failure to connect with the person you are talking to can be considered rude. For instance, watching the television simultaneously while talking to someone or checking your phone in the middle of a chat with a friend could be considered wandering attention.

Uncomfortable and comfortable silence

Silence happens in most conversations, but how that feels sends the real cue. An awkward silence can happen in conversations with new people, work colleagues, or people you don’t know well, often making both parties uncomfortable. In longer and stronger relationships, silence is less cause for concern, making it a more comfortable experience that doesn’t feel like you’ve run out of things to say.

Attitude and tone of voice

Your tone of voice and attitude can impact how someone else views you. For example, in a work meeting, you might want to impress your boss in a one-to-one meeting with your professional tone and positive attitude toward getting work done. Likewise, a negative tone of voice can say things about you too – if you say something in a way that makes it sound like a complaint or failure, that’s the impression you’ll give. The tone clarifies the meaning. In English, different words can mean many different things.

Active engagement

Active engagement is any social cue you focus on to show you’re actively involved in a conversation. That might mean nodding along with what someone else is saying or clarifying what they said by verbally repeating it back to them. Active engagement can also be other non-verbal factors, such as sitting upright, placing your attention directly on that person, and making the correct facial expressions at the right time in line with what that person is saying.

Who struggles with social cues?

Not everyone easily understands social cues, making it more difficult to navigate conversations and engage with others. While social cues are innate and learned for many people, some need help developing important social skills. Here are a few of the people that may struggle to read social cues in others:

Younger children

Younger children are still learning the norms and conventions of society. Part of that learning curve means they will only sometimes get social cues right, and they need time and experience to develop that understanding with their friends, family, and teachers.

People with learning difficulties

People with learning difficulties may have problems understanding other people’s emotions and behavior. In some individuals, this can be a skill learned over time. For others, it may not be possible to fully understand the more subtle social cues, making it important to understand their limitations as something other than rudeness or lack of attention.

Autistic people

Autistic people can have lifelong struggles with understanding the emotions and behavior of other people, including reading social cues. Eye contact and physical body language are two of the most challenging areas for people with autism. Learning different expressions and tones of voice, such as the difference between shouting and angry and shouting and happy, is usually part of education for children with Autism.

Individuals with little social experience

People with little social experience or less experience socializing when they were younger, such as homeschooled children, may need more time to adapt to social cues. Many parents were concerned about under-socialization following the pandemic, but at a young age, many children quickly developed vital social skills over time.

How to improve your understanding of social cues

If you want to be better engaged in conversation and you’d like to be able to pick up on more social cues, the ideal place to start is with training. As a partly learned skill, the more you focus on social cues, the better you’ll identify them. Here are some methods you can use to improve:

  • Study your facial expressions
  • Practice conversations
  • Work on your tone of voice
  • Engage in more social situations
  • Consider attending classes if necessary
  • Get out of your comfort zone
  • Look up guides online