Do you have people you know who always seem to “get it” without you having to tell them how you are feeling or what you are thinking? Maybe you know others who never seem to understand what is happening socially? We don’t always tell others what we are experiencing, and yet close friends and family often seem to know anyway. How does this happen?
From a very early age most of us begin learning to read cues from those around us. We look at facial expressions, listen to the tone of voice, sense whether someone is calm, friendly, tense, or irritable. These all provide hints about a person. These hints make it easier for us to get along with others and understand the social world around us. Amazingly, this mostly happens without our thinking about it or being aware of it. For most of us, it is just obvious and automatic.
While we react to almost everyone around us, as you can imagine, it is easier to read the cues from those we know better. Social cues are like a language. The more familiar you are with an individual’s language the more precisely you can understand them.
Social cues also get reflected in our behavior. How close do you stand to someone else you are speaking to? How directly do you look at someone? These all give us clues about how we are feeling in an interaction. And think about this – different cultures or societies can have different social languages. People all over the world smile when happy or laugh at funny things. But in some cultures it is considered rude to make direct eye contact with others and in others it is considered rude not to make eye contact! This is why it can be challenging at times to visit foreign countries. Even if the people understand each other’s language or you have someone to interpret, sometimes misunderstandings happen because of difficulty reading social cues.
Think about this – one of the big challenges in communicating through social media is the lack of social cues. When you cannot hear or see a person – when you are only communicating through written language, it is much easier to have misunderstandings. The people who invented “emoji’s” were probably trying to figure out how to add cues to social media. It is useful to be aware that misunderstandings are easy with fewer cues.
It is also important to recognize that social cues can sometimes be confusing or imprecise. This can happen easily on social media but can happen in person too. Have you ever had a friend who maybe was down about something and you saw them and thought they were angry at you? This is why even though we can get a lot of information from nonverbal social cues, it is not a substitute for conversation.
Can you think of a profession that requires great sensitivity to and awareness of social cues? Actors need to become expert in social cues. To be a good actor you need to be able to manage how you communicate social cues in very careful ways. This can take lots of study and work and this is what actors work on when they are training. (Watch a movie or TV show for a while with the volume turned off and see whether you can get a feeling of what is happening just based on the behavior and cues of the actors).
And think about what it would be like to live without being able to “read” social cues at all. In fact, this is one of the main problems for people with autism and autism spectrum disorders. And this is a large reason that people with autism struggle with social interactions.