A social cue is any means of communication – verbal or non-verbal – that can be used as a hint to help us gain information during a social interaction.
The ability to read social cues is an important social skill because it helps us to understand a social situation, infer hidden meanings, and act in socially and culturally appropriate ways.
Here are some examples of different types of social cues:
- Verbal Cues: These cues are in spoken or written language. For example, if someone’s voice rises at the end of a sentence, it could indicate that they are asking a question. Another example is when a person’s tone or pace changes to show different emotions.
- Visual Cues: These cues are what we see. For example, body language, facial expressions, and gestures. If someone is looking at their watch repeatedly during a conversation, it may suggest that they’re in a hurry or bored.
- Auditory Cues: These are cues that we hear, aside from language. For example, the tone, pitch, volume, and speed of someone’s speech can give us information about their emotional state.
- Tactile Cues: These cues are what we feel. For instance, a pat on the back or a handshake can indicate encouragement or agreement.
Understanding social cues is essential for effective social interaction, and difficulties in recognizing or interpreting social cues can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Some conditions, like autism spectrum disorder, can make it more challenging for individuals to interpret and respond to social cues.
Social Cues Examples
|Social Cue Example
|Meaning in a Western Cultural Context
|Avoiding eye contact can suggest discomfort, disinterest, or dishonesty.
|People who are close may stand or sit closer to each other.
|This body language may suggest defensiveness, closed-off attitude, or discomfort.
|Nodding signifies agreement, understanding, or encouragement.
|Smiling, frowning, raising eyebrows, or rolling eyes convey emotions and responses.
|Subtly copying body language indicates empathy, agreement, or building rapport.
|People often touch their face when nervous, anxious, or trying to deceive.
|Consistently looking away may suggest disinterest, discomfort, or dishonesty.
|Leaning in typically suggests interest and engagement, while leaning out can suggest the opposite.
|A genuine smile indicates happiness or agreement. Forced or fake smiles suggest discomfort.
|Fidgeting is a sign of nervousness, impatience, or boredom.
|Voice Pitch and Volume
|Loud, high-pitched voice can indicate excitement or anger. Low, soft voice may suggest sadness or uncertainty.
|Yawning is a sign of tiredness or boredom.
|Laughter indicates amusement or joy, but can also be a nervous reaction.
|Pointing draws attention but can be seen as aggressive in some cultures.
|Sighing can indicate frustration, disappointment, relief, or exhaustion.
|Raised eyebrows can indicate surprise, skepticism, or questioning.
|Knitted brows can indicate confusion, concentration, or displeasure.
|Head shaking usually indicates disagreement or denial.
|Head nodding usually indicates agreement or affirmation.
|Expressive hand movements underline words or express concepts.
|Arms akimbo can signify impatience, anger, or authority.
|Standing tall can indicate confidence, readiness, or pride.
|Slumped shoulders can indicate disappointment, sadness, or lack of confidence.
|Crossed legs suggest comfort or discomfort, openness or closedness.
|Fist clenching can indicate anger, frustration, or determination.
|Foot tapping can indicate impatience, nervousness, or excitement.
|Gazing into Distance
|Gazing into the distance suggests distraction, disinterest, or contemplation.
|Intense Eye Contact
|Intense eye contact can indicate interest, attraction, or dominance.
|Looking at the Clock
|Repeatedly looking at the clock or watch is a sign of boredom, impatience, or anticipation.
|Playing with Hair
|Playing with hair can indicate nervousness, flirtation, or distraction.
|Covering the mouth while speaking can suggest lying, surprise, or shyness.
|Licking lips can indicate anticipation, nervousness, or deception.
|Rubbing Hands Together
|Rubbing hands together suggests anticipation or scheming.
|Bowing is a sign of respect or acknowledgment in many cultures.
|Steepled fingers suggest confidence, contemplation, or scheming.
|Checking the phone constantly suggests distraction, boredom, or impatience.
|Squinting indicates skepticism, concentration, or struggle to understand.
|Winking suggests playfulness, flirtation, or a shared secret.
|Hugging can indicate friendship, love, or comfort, depending on the context.
|Kissing can show respect, greeting, farewell, or affection, depending on cultures.
|Fist bump is a casual greeting or sign of agreement.
|High five is a sign of celebration or agreement.
|Thumbs up/down is a simple way of showing approval or disapproval.
|Salute is a formal sign of respect or acknowledgment, often in military contexts.
|Touching one’s own neck can suggest discomfort, vulnerability, or nervousness.
|Rubbing the back of the neck can suggest uncertainty, discomfort, or lying.
|Palm Facing Upwards
|Palm facing upwards can suggest openness, honesty, or a request.
|Palm Facing Downwards
|Palm facing downwards can suggest dominance, certainty, or control.
|Shrugging suggests uncertainty, indifference, or lack of knowledge.
|Dilated pupils can suggest attraction, fear, or surprise.
|Flaring nostrils can suggest anger, excitement, or disgust.
|Pursed lips can suggest disagreement, disapproval, or thoughtfulness.
|Rapid blinking can suggest stress, discomfort, or lying.
|Whispering suggests secrecy, intimacy, or respect.
Understanding Social Cues: A Deep Dive
1. How Social Cues Work
“Cue integration” refers to the process by which the brain combines information from different sensory modalities to form a cohesive understanding of the world around us.
This process can also be referred to as multisensory integration or sensory fusion.
One interesting aspect of cue integration is that it can demonstrate that perception of reality is not based solely on individual sensory inputs. Rather, it relies on the integration of different sensory cues. This can lead us to tricking our own minds, as in the example below.
A Classic Example of Cue Integration
A classic example of cue integration is the “ventriloquist effect”. When we watch a ventriloquist’s puppet speak, our brain integrates the visual cue of the puppet’s moving mouth with the auditory cue of the ventriloquist’s speech. As a result, we perceive that the sound is coming from the puppet, not from the ventriloquist.
Cue integration generally involves processing all of the verbal, visual, auditory, and tactile cues at the same time, triangulating them, and trying to use each to develop a coherent multisensory understanding of our surround.
Socially, this can help us to understand another person’s state of mind or intentions – we look to a range of social cues and triangulate them to get a general perception.
For example, to understand a person’s emotional state, you might:
- Take note of the person’s facial expression (visual cues)
- Take note of the person’s tone of voice (auditory cues), and
- Take note of the content of what they say (verbal cues).
Some different types of cues we could use to understand meaning include:
Social Cues and Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts a person’s social interactions, communication, interests, and behaviors.
Individuals with autism often have difficulty recognizing and interpreting social cues, including body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice (Ashwin, Hietanen & Baron-Cohen, 2015).
While ASD affects individuals differently, commonly, some issues with social cues may include:
- Theory of mind difficulties: Theory of mind is the ability to understand others’ thoughts, beliefs, and intentions, separate from one’s own. Many people with autism have difficulty with this, which makes it hard to predict or understand other people’s behaviors based on social cues (Andreou & Skrimpa, 2020).
- Sensory processing differences: People with autism often process sensory information differently than others. Often, this involves difficulties in filtering out extraneous stimuli and achieving selective attention. For example, they may be particularly focused on the color of your t-shirt, yet fail to understand social cues in tone of voice that were important for inferring meaning.
- Literal interpretation: Many individuals with autism tend to interpret language and communication in a literal manner. They might not understand non-literal expressions, sarcasm, or idioms, which are often parts of social communication.
- Difficulty with generalization: People with autism often struggle to apply knowledge or skills learned in one context to another context. For example, they might learn to interpret a specific social cue in a therapy session but struggle to apply this understanding in a different social situation (Zurcher et al., 2017).
Note that it’s crucial to avoid generalizing all people with autism, especially because it manifests in diverse ways, which requires us to understand and respect each person’s unique experiences and abilities and to avoid specific typecasting.
Social Cues and Internet Communication
One of the difficulties of internet communication is that it doesn’t facilitate cue integration.
For example, when texting over a messenger app, we can only rely on text (written communication), and not a wider range of cues such as a peson’s body language or facial expression.
This can lead to misunderstandings, such as someone’s use of sarcasm which goes awry, or misunderstanding of which word requires emphasis in a sentence, which may lead to complete misunderstanding of what’s being communicated.
As a result, youth culture often integrates emojis and shorthand words that can help convey specific meaning. Unfortunately for people who aren’t in touch with youth culture, this can cause confusion, further emphasizing the importance of reading social cues in cultural contexts.
2. Social Cues Across Cultures
Social cues can vary greatly between different cultures and societies. The same cue can be interpreted very differently depending on the cultural context.
Here are a few examples:
- Eye Contact: In many Western cultures, eye contact is generally seen as a sign of confidence and honesty. In contrast, in some Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous cultures, avoiding direct eye contact can be seen as a sign of respect, particularly when interacting with an elder or a person in authority.
- Physical Contact: Cultures also vary in terms of acceptable physical contact. For instance, in Mediterranean and Latin cultures, it’s common for people to greet each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek, even if they are meeting for the first time. However, in many Asian cultures, physical contact is usually limited, particularly between opposite sexes, and a bow or a nod is a more typical greeting.
- Proxemics (Personal Space): Different cultures also have varying norms when it comes to personal space. In cultures such as those in North America and Northern Europe, people typically prefer more personal space during interactions, while in other cultures like in the Middle East and Latin America, closer physical proximity is common during conversations.
- Hand Gestures: Hand gestures can have vastly different meanings in different cultures. For example, the thumbs-up gesture is generally seen as a sign of approval in many Western cultures. However, in parts of West Africa, the Middle East, and South America, it can be seen as offensive. Similarly, the “OK” sign (forming a circle with the thumb and index finger) is positive in the United States, but it can be seen as vulgar in countries like Brazil and Turkey.
- Silence: In Western cultures, silence during a conversation may be perceived as awkward or as a sign that something is wrong. However, in some Eastern cultures, silence is seen as a sign of respect and thoughtfulness, indicating that the listener is carefully considering the speaker’s words.
- Punctuality: In many Western societies, punctuality is highly valued and being late might be seen as disrespectful. However, in other cultures, like in Latin America or the Middle East, time is often seen as more flexible, and it is more acceptable to arrive a bit late for social engagements.
These examples underline the importance of cultural awareness and sensitivity in interpreting social cues accurately. Understanding cultural differences in social cues can help avoid misunderstandings and improve communication in intercultural contexts.
Social Cues in High Context vs Low Context Cultures
Social scientists have identified a divide in the importance of social cues between western-individualistic and eastern-collectivist cultures (Bai, 2016).
While both cultures rely on social cues to generate meaning, it’s been found that eastern-collectivist cultures tend to rely more heavily on social cues to communicate meaning (Lewis, 2006).
High-context cultures rely heavily on social cues such as nonverbal and implicit communication. On the other hand, low-context cultures depend on direct verbal commands and explicit statements, which means social cues are usually less implicit and more direct.
|High Context Culture
|Low Context Culture
|Nonverbal & implicit communication – more subtle social cues, and higher reliance on social cues.
|Reliance on verbal and explicit statements, and less on subtle social cues, to generate meaning
|Nuanced and often indirect communication
|Straightforward communication, direct tone
|Eastern cultures, such as those in South-East Asia
|Individualistic cultures, such as the USA, Canada, and Australia
|Relatively informal, less task-oriented
|Slightly formal, more task-oriented
Social cues are important for people to fully comprehend the meaning of an interaction. By becoming proficient at social cues, we can experience less miscommunication, and make our lives a lot easier. However, social cues tend to be highly culturally-dependant, meaning it’s hard for cultural outsiders to understand nuanced meaning in communication. As a result, often new language learners or neurodivergent people need explicit instruction on how to read social cues within cultural contexts.
Andreou, M., & Skrimpa, V. (2020). Theory of mind deficits and neurophysiological operations in autism spectrum disorders: a review. Brain sciences, 10(6), 393. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci10060393
Ashwin, C., Hietanen, J. K., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2015). Atypical integration of social cues for orienting to gaze direction in adults with autism. Molecular autism, 6(1), 1-10.
Bai, H. (2016). A cross-cultural analysis of advertisements from high-context cultures and low-context cultures. English Language Teaching, 9(8), 21-27.
Lewis, Richard D. (2006). When cultures collide: leading across cultures: a major new edition of the global guide. Nicholas Brealey International.
Zurcher, N. R., Rogier, O., Boshyan, J., Hippolyte, L., Russo, B., Gillberg, N., … & Hadjikhani, N. (2013). Perception of social cues of danger in autism spectrum disorders. PloS one, 8(12). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0081206
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]