Types of Social Cues

Social cues are the ways in which we communicate without using words. These cues involve aspects such as facial expressions, how we move our bodies, tone of voice, our physical proximity to others, and any other way we express ourselves outside of verbal communication.

While social cues tend to be similar among most people, they can be affected by many things, including a person's personality, culture, and comfort levels. Some conditions, such as social anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), can change the way a person both communicates and interprets social cues.

For this article, we will be looking at social cues that are common, how they are typically interpreted, and how you can improve your understanding of social cues.

A man sits on a couch using hand gestures as he speaks to another person who is out of the frame except for their hands.

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

What Are Social Cues?

Social cues are ways we communicate without words or in addition to verbal communication. They can express our feelings by using our faces, bodies, and behavior without talking or while we are talking.

It's estimated that 60%–65% of the way we communicate with others is through nonverbal behaviors.

Social cues are part of the overall way humans communicate. Social cues and wods work together and depend on context. A singular expression of a social cue shouldn't be relied upon, but looking at the whole person while they are communicating can give many clues to their emotions, intent, reactions, and other valuable information.

Are Social Cues Universal?

Overall, the way people perform most social cues is similar. Some of them are even believed to be evolutionary-based and hardwired, meaning that many of us perform the same social cues automatically.

However, social cues are not universal. Some people express and interpret social cues differently.

Physical (Body Language)

Posture

Posture is how a person holds their body. It can express how someone is feeling or what message they are trying to convey.

For example, if a person has a closed posture, with arms or legs (or both) crossed, they likely are feeling uncomfortable, disinterested, frustrated, or other unpleasant emotions or reactions.

If someone has an open posture (arms and legs uncrossed and relaxed), they may be indicating a higher level of comfort or interest.

Remember that physical comfort is also a factor in posture. Someone may have their arms crossed or be sitting in an open stance because it feels better to them.

Angling The Body

Angling the body, especially the legs, towards a person can show you are engaged in what they are saying or doing. Similarly, leaning in towards the person can also show interest.

Gesturing

Some people gesticulate ("talk with their hands") more than others, but the gestures people use usually have meaning behind them.

Gestures are a type of nonverbal expression. A wave of the hand side to side, for instance, can mean hello or goodbye. An upright hand with palm out usually means stop. An index finger extended towards something means to look or go there.

Sometimes gestures are used to emphasize what a person is saying. A person telling an exciting story may wave their hands around as they speak, for example.

Gestures can also be culturally based. Some gestures that are used positively in one part of the world, such as the "OK" hand gesture in America, can be offensive or aggressive in other areas. Be careful of your gestures when traveling.

Is Sign Language Gesturing?

Sign language is a group of languages with grammatical rules just as spoken language has. There are dialect (language that is native to a specific region or social group) differences within each sign language as well. Gesturing itself is not sign language.

People who communicate with sign language also use gestures in a similar way as people using spoken language, as an emphasis or communication outside of grammatically coded signs.

Mirroring

You may have heard that yawns are contagious, or found yourself unable to resist smiling when you see someone else smiling.

These are examples of mirroring. It is common for people to mimic, or copy, head movements, body movements, and facial expressions from one another when they are communicating.

Mirroring can be a sign of attentiveness or engagement.

Touching

Touching can convey a wide variety of meanings, from intimacy to establishing dominance.

Touch can have multiple meaning and depends on the context or situation in which it is used. A hand resting softly on the shoulder of another person sitting close by can be a gesture of caring, while a quick tap of a shoulder is usually a means of getting someone's attention.

Paying attention to how others respond to touch is also important. Not everyone likes to be touched, either in general, by certain people, or in specific ways. Touching someone else, regardless of intentions, requires consent.

Fidgeting

Fidgeting, such as playing with hair, tapping a pen, or shifting around in a chair, can give an impression of being disinterested, disengaged, or bored.

This cue needs to be taken in context. Someone who doesn't typically fidget but is behaving this way may indicate inattentiveness but for some people, including people with ADHD, fidgeting is a tool used to improve focus.

Facial Expressions

There are six basic emotions conveyed by facial expressions:

  • Surprise
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Happiness
  • Sadness

Subtle changes in facial expressions also can reveal a person's emotions. The eyes and mouth are typically what a person scans most when someone is speaking to them.

The Eyes

A person's eyes can be a good indicator of how someone is feeling. This includes:

  • Eyes open wide and eyebrows raised might mean surprise or fear.
  • Tensed eyelids and lowered brows drawn towards each other could mean anger or confusion.
  • Smiling may cause wrinkles to appear around the eyes.

Dilated pupils are considered a sign of arousal, though this can be influenced by lighting.

Looking into another person's eyes can show attentiveness and interest, while looking away or down can indicate discomfort or disinterest.

Prolonged eye contact or staring can feel intimidating or threatening.

Keep in mind that making eye contact can be difficult for some people, even if they are interested and engaged.

The Mouth

The mouth communicates in many more ways than words:

  • An open mouth without tension can indicate surprise.
  • Tight, tense, or pursed lips may show a person is angry, afraid, or skeptical.
  • A raised upper lip and wrinkled nose can show disgust.
  • Corners drawn upwards into a smile can mean happiness. It can also mean deviousness, sarcasm, and many other expressions, depending on the context and the rest of the facial expression.
  • Corners drawn down or lips trembling can show sadness.

A person may also bite their lip, lick their lips frequently, or grind or clench their teeth if they are nervous or stressed.

Vocal

How we say things can determine the meaning of the words we say.

Inflection or intonation (changing the tone or pitch of our voice) is a way to be more expressive and give clarity to what we are saying. Speaking with little variety in your inflection may convey that you are bored and may lose the interest of the person listening. Varying your pitch (the highness and lowness of your voice) can make for more enjoyable listening.

Emphasis in the Voice

Where the emphasis is placed on words also matters.

"You went to the store?" implies a surprise that that individual was the person who went to the store.

"You went to the store?" suggests that the location is the source of surprise, not the person.

Volume also makes a difference. Mumbling may suggest nervousness. Yelling may suggest enthusiasm or anger.

Nonverbal

Proxemics

Proxemics refers to how close a person is standing to another. It often indicates a level of comfort or intimacy between them.

Anthropologist Edward Hall, who coined the term, described four proxemic zones:

  • Intimate (18 inches or less): Parents and children, lovers, spouses, and partners
  • Personal (1.5–feet): Close friends
  • Social (4–12 feet): Friends and co-workers
  • Public (12 feet or more): Strangers and officials

These zones are based on American culture. Proxemic norms vary greatly among cultures.

Clothing

Clothing can tell a lot about a person. A person wearing a military uniform likely is a soldier. A person in a white lab coat likely is in the medical or science fields.

Some clothing is less obvious, but still gives us clues to the person wearing them and in what context.

"Formal" versus "casual" clothes are deemed appropriate in different settings. Someone going on a job interview is likely to dress in a way that projects professionalism, while it's unlikely someone will show up wearing a power suit for a game of baseball with friends.

Difficulty Reading Social Cues

Not everyone is adept at reading typical social cues. Some health conditions affect the way a person performs and interprets common social cues. This does not mean the people affected by these conditions do not communicate, but rather their ways of communicating are different from the majority, which can make it tricky to understand each other.

People on the Autism Spectrum

Some people with ASD:

  • Do not make eye contact, or make minimal eye contact
  • Have facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said
  • Have a tone of voice that differs from typical ways of speaking
  • Have difficulty interpreting the social cues of others

For example, research on eye gazing has shown that when people with autism are looking at images and movies, they are less likely than peers not on the autism spectrum to look where the characters are looking, and more likely to look at what the characters are doing.

People With Social Anxiety

Social anxiety disorder is a condition characterized by an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. Social anxiety can affect the way a person both expresses and interprets social cues. People with social anxiety are more likely to find eye contact uncomfortable and avoid it than those without social anxiety.

A 2009 study found that though people with social anxiety recognize that smiling faces mean happiness, they judge happy faces as less approachable than do those without social anxiety.

How Common Is Social Anxiety?

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 7% of Americans are affected by social anxiety.

People With ADHD

Many with ADHD have difficulty interpreting subtle nuances in communication such as subtext (“reading between the lines”).

People with ADHD usually know what is expected of them socially, but they have difficulty doing it as ADHD characteristics such as inattentiveness and impulsivity interfere. These behaviors can be misunderstood by others, too. For instance, interrupting may be interpreted as rude, or fidgeting may be misconstrued as bored or anxious.

What Is Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

Though not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, nonverbal learning disorder describes a set of characteristics experienced by some children, including:

  • Physical coordination
  • Social interaction
  • Problem-solving
  • Organizing thoughts

These relate to the ability to recognize patterns or concepts and then apply them to new situations. Because social cues are a type of pattern, these kids can have difficulty interpreting them.

Non-verbal learning disorder shares some characteristics with ADHD and ASD, but it is not the same as either condition.

Social Skills Test

Online quizzes are available that claim to test your social skills, but note that the validity and quality of these tests vary widely.

One option is a test by Psychology Today. This test gives a free summary of results but requires payment for the full results.

These tests are not a substitution for a professional exam. If you have concerns about your social skills, it's best to contact a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.

How to Build Your Social Skills

The ways in which people communicate vary, and that is OK. Social skills and cues tend to be evaluated based on typical or common social behavior. However, not everyone uses or interprets social cues in the same way.

If you would like to build typical social skills, here are some steps you can take:

  • Practice: Work on one skill at a time.
  • Get feedback: Ask a trusted friend or family member to give you some feedback. It is often hard to know how we appear to others.
  • Observe yourself: Record yourself having a conversation or practice with a mirror to see how you are communicating and if there is anything you would like to work on changing.
  • Practice your skills with others: It may help to start with small interactions with strangers, such as checking out at the grocery store.

Summary

Social cues are a form of communication that is done without words, or in addition to verbal communication. Social cues can be performed with the hands, body, face, or even nonverbal vocal cues. While many social cues are consistent in society, the way we express them or interpret them can vary on the person. If you are concerned about your ability to interpret social cues, working with a mental health professional can help.

A Word From Verywell

Nonverbal communication can be very useful in both expressing yourself and understanding the emotions and intents of others.

While many social cues are common between people, they are not concrete. It is important to remember that people communicate differently, including with social cues. Use social cues as clues to communication rather than a guidebook.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you improve your social cues?

    "Improve" is a subjective term. People express and interpret social cues in different ways.

    Some social cues are more common than others. If you wish to become more adept at communicating and interpreting these cues, the best way to do it is through practice and feedback from people you trust.

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