Social cues exist in most social situations we find ourselves in. We are expected to use social cues to communicate with others, and read social cues that other people are expressing. Whether we are with our families, friends, coworkers, or strangers, we are expected to pick up on the social cues around us and react to these cues in a prosocial way.
The biggest challenge with understanding social cues is that many of them are non-verbal. As social communicators, we do a lot of communicating through our body language, eye contact, and other non-verbal indicators. For example, have you ever been in a situation where you needed to leave, but the person you are having a conversation with won’t stop talking? Maybe you are giving them clues that you need to leave - backing towards the door or looking at your watch or phone. You might think you are being clear about your need to leave, but since you are using non-verbal clues, the other person may not have picked up on them. This can lead to uncomfortable and awkward social situations. If this hasn’t happened to you, perhaps you’ve been the person on the other side who isn’t sure how to end the conversation. You might even be aware that the social cues exist, but reading them in context and then doing something about it feels impossible.
The following are the most common non-verbal social cues that people use during social situations:
Eye Contact: You might have heard that eye contact is an important skill when having a conversation, but you might not realize just how much social information lies within each eye gaze. Using eye contact in social situations is actually about ‘listening with your eyes.’ When we look at, follow, and read the eye gaze of the person we are talking to, we can gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and intentions. When we are speaking to someone, we give them eye contact, and expect the same in return. Subtle shifts in eye contact can mean a variety of different things depending on the context. For example, if your communication partner is talking about something and you lose interest, you may start to look elsewhere. You may look around the room at what other people are doing, look at the art on the walls, or look at your phone. You are telling your communication politely using non-verbal communication that you don’t want to talk about that topic anymore. A good social communicator will pick up on your sustained eye contact away from them, reflect on their own behavior, and decide to change the topic, back off, or invite the other person back into the conversation by asking a question. When we think or listen with our eyes, we can make a good guess about what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Body Language: We can also provide and receive a lot of social information from the ways we move our bodies during conversations. For example, if someone yawns, we can interpret the meaning of this body language to mean that they are tired or bored. Even something as simple as moving our whole bodies slightly towards someone or away from someone, or crossing our arms in front of our bodies or keeping them relaxed at our sides, can carry a great deal of meaning. And while we may not even be conscious of the message we are sending, other people pick up on these messages subconsciously as well. While we may absolutely want other people to think of us as open and friendly, our body language may be telling a different story. Understanding social cues through body language is another way to read the thoughts, emotions, and intentions of our communication partners.
Props: Sometimes people will use physical props to communicate non-verbally during social situations. For example, we might look at our phone to check the time or check for a missed text or call. Looking at our phone may indicate to our communication partners that we need to end the conversation and move on to something else. Perhaps you are in a crowded room and you don’t feel like talking to anyone. You might take out your phone and browse the internet, play games, or look at apps, just to send a message to other people that you are not available to socially interact. And while this can be interpreted as not the post prosocial behavior, it is a perfect example of how we communicate non-verbally with the people in our environment all the time.
Understanding non-verbal social cues is a skill that takes time and practice. Social skills are context dependent and each situation we encounter will be different than the last. The complexity of variables in social situation is enormous, and while we can learn some basic tools to help us interpret social cues, this is a skill that takes lots of practice and reflection. Interpreting and engaging in non-verbal social cues is an excellent way to start increasing prosocial interactions.