What Are Social Cues? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: David White
Social cues are a critically important aspect of communication. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define social cues and explore some examples of how they influence social interaction and engagement.

Recognizing Social Cues

Imagine that you're explaining something to someone at a party and halfway through your conversation the person turns and walks away. Would you follow them and keep talking or would you simply go talk to someone else? More than likely you would go find someone else because you recognize that walking away from someone in the middle of a conversation, while incredibly rude, is an indication that they aren't interested in what you're saying.

The reason you know that the person isn't interested in your explanation is because they've given you a social cue. These are social symbols expressed through body language, tone, or words that are intended to send a message from one person to another. In simple terms, social cues are a category of communication that helps guide us in our relationships and interactions with others. In the example above, the listener chose to use a social cue to indicate something rather than directly tell you they aren't interested in talking to you.

Having a well-developed understanding of social cues and the strong ability to interpret them can greatly increase your skills as a communicator because you'll be able to read a person's behavior and respond appropriately. Under-developed awareness of social cues, on the other hand, can make it challenging to form relationships with others and interact in social situations.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions can be a great way to communicate social cues. A common example of this type of social cue is a furrowed brow, which is when a person squints their eyes or scrunches up their face causing wrinkles on their forehead. This is usually an indication that the person is annoyed or confused by what the speaker is saying or doing. For instance, if you are talking to someone about molecular biology and notice a furrowed brow, you could assume they're confused and you should find a better way to explain your thought.

A furrowed brow often indicates confusion or annoyance.

Another good example of facial expression as social cues is a smile. Although smiles aren't always genuine, people generally smile (consciously and unconsciously) when they're happy or amused. For instance, if you're in a group and tell a joke that makes people smile, you can assume that the joke went over well because people have provided a social cue to indicate as much. Conversely, if your joke doesn't elicit a smile that is a social cue indicating that the group didn't think what you said was funny.

In both cases, social cues give you an indication about what to do next. The furrowed brow tells you that you should find a more accessible way to explain something, while the smile indicates that they like your humor and a lack of smile suggests that you should try a different style.

A smile is a good indicator that the person is pleased or amused, generally meaning that you need not change your course of action.

Body Language

In all types of communication, our body language provides considerable information to the listener and can be a very effective way to convey social cues. For instance, if you try to hug someone and they take a slight step back, they've just used their body to indicate that they don't want you to hug them.

Our body language can be a great way to effectively establish our personal space. This is the amount of space that we need between ourselves and others in order to be comfortable. In the example above, the person taking a step back is a social cue indicating that you've just violated their personal space. If you didn't recognize or understand this type of social cue, not only would you violate someone's personal space, but you'd also have considerable difficulty interacting with the person because they aren't comfortable with you.

Your personal space is the amount of space you need between you and another person in order to be comfortable.

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