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Social Cues: What It Is, 22 Universal Behaviors & How to Respond to Them

Do you have a problem reading social cues? Learning how to read them will help you have better relationships and get further in life. Here’s how to do it.

social cues

Human beings are very complex creatures. Often, what we say and what we feel aren’t always the same. This can make talking to other people very confusing at times. Knowing how to read people’s social cues is an important component of finding happiness, being self-assured, and having high self-esteem. 

But not everyone understands what social cues are or how important they are to our emotional well-being.

What are social cues?

Social cues are the ways that people send messages nonverbally and verbally through their movements, facial expressions, or actions. They also guide conversations and other social interactions by influencing our impressions and response to others.

Social cues are important tools of communication because they convey important information about people and situations. [Read: 26 social mind tricks to be more outgoing, friendly, and talkative instantly]

People rely heavily on the ability to understand other people’s mental and emotional states and try to predict their behavior.

In terms of evolution, reading social cues helps people recognize potential threats and things that would help them. Research shows that humans can start doing this around 18 months of age.

Why is it important to learn social cues? 

Being able to process and decode social cues is an important part of everyday human interaction. So, it’s a critical skill for communication and social understanding. [Read: Social anxiety vs. shyness – 37 signs, differences, and ways to overcome them]

If you want to form and maintain relationships, then it is critical that you learn how to assess people’s internal states such as their thoughts and emotions. 

Being able to accurately detect both positive and negative social cues allows a person to adapt to people and situations in order to avoid rejection. Therefore, people feel much more socially included when they know how to read social cues.

When someone can’t read social cues, it makes social situations challenging for them. As a result, it’s difficult for them to form relationships with others. And others might even label them as “weird.” [Read: Stop being socially awkward! 13 steps that’ll change you for good]

Who might struggle with reading social cues? 

At some point in our lives, we all struggle to read social cues. After all, social skills like that are, well, skills, so while we aren’t good with them when we’re younger, we naturally get better with age. However, there are some people who struggle to learn how to read social cues even well into their adulthood.

For example, there is a condition called social communication disorder *SCD*. People with this disorder aren’t able to accurately read other people’s social cues.

Most often, the problem is with their brain processing. In other words, the information they get from social cues isn’t processed correctly in their brains. This causes an interruption in communication.

Someone with SCD may come across as standoffish, isolated, intrusive, or smothering. They usually have a hard time recognizing humor or sarcasm, connecting with others, and maintaining relationships – all because they struggle with interpreting social cues. [Read: 17 good and bad types of humor and how it affects your relationships with others]

Other types of people who have problems reading social cues have some level of autism, even the higher-functioning ones with Asperger’s Syndrome. They also have similar issues with not understanding body language and vocal cues.

Even if someone doesn’t have SCD or a form of autism, they still might have a hard time with social cues. People with low social and emotional intelligence *EQ* will also be bad at decoding social cues. [Read: The socially awkward person’s guide to flirting]

On the other hand, people with high emotional intelligence find it incredibly easy to read others’ social cues. In fact, it’s just second nature to them, so they might not understand why other people can’t do it as easily as they can. [Read: Socially awkward? 16 little hacks to loosen up and live life]

The most important social cues you might be missing

There are some major cues, however, that can help you to react appropriately in social situations and settings. 

If you get these universal social cues, it might help you better succeed personally and professionally, or at a minimum, know when you are turning someone off or on.

1. Back off

Everyone knows the “close talker” except the close talker himself. [Read: Clearly noticeable body language signs of attraction]

In social situations, people need something called their “personal space.” It is a zone around us that we keep to appropriately distance ourselves from others.

Close talkers don’t understand people’s comfort zones and often cross the line. 

When someone approaches you and comes in too close to talk to you *or touches you* without you sending them the “go” sign, it can be a huge turnoff and have someone looking for an exit. [Read: How to know when to give someone space – 19 signs they’re sick of you]

You can tell if you’re invading someone’s personal bubble when they try to back away from you or evade talking to your altogether.

Someone’s personal zone is about three feet, so getting any closer, unless you are invited to do so, can make other people feel uncomfortable.

Being aware of other people’s social space can help you to be more accepted in social interactions. [Read: Rules of proper social etiquette that redefine social manners]

2. Volume and tone of voice

The way that you move your voice up and down is a signal of how important what you are saying is. 

When someone is saying something that is highly important that they want you to pay attention to, they will talk loudly or very animatedly.

When you are in a heated conversation with your mate or boss, and they stress certain phrases or have a lot of variation in the tone of their voice, it is imperative that you listen. [Read: 17 hacks to have a sexy voice and seduce anyone with the way you talk]

They want you to hear and follow what they are saying. Even if what they are saying is not as important as the way that they are saying it.

That is why if someone says “I’m not mad” when yelling their words and their social cues don’t coincide, you should go with the assumption that if they weren’t angry, they wouldn’t be so loud about it. 

Higher pitches typically mean that a person is excited, while lower means that they are more serious about what they are saying. [Read: 17 ways to be assertive and speak your mind out loud]

3. Texting and emailing 

These forms of communication have caused more wars than anything else in the history of communication.

Why? Because we read messages from the perspective we have about a situation or person. 

When someone sends you a message, try to take your own assumptions out of it and read it exactly as written to gain a better understanding of what it really says. [Read: Texting etiquette and 20 unwritten rules of savvy flirting]

“What are you doing today?” could be read as “Are you being lazy again?” to someone who is already feeling bad about how involved they have been when it really might be asking nothing more than “what you are doing?”

Social cues are incredibly hard to decipher through text or written messages. 

To avoid all of this confusion while you’re learning how to read social cues, verbally talk to someone or pick up the phone to ensure that you’re both hearing and understanding each other. [Read: Double texting – what it is, how to avoid it, and 15 must-follow rules]

4. Looking someone in the eye *or not*

Eye contact is one of the most critical social cues there is. When someone doesn’t look you in the eye, it can send a various number of signals. 

Typically, when someone doesn’t look you in the eye, it means that they are uncomfortable, guilty, feeling awkward, or that they have something to say that they aren’t saying.

If someone won’t look you in the eye when talking to you, then the social cue they are sending is that whatever communication you are having isn’t exactly on the up and up. [Read: Giveaways to tell if someone is lying to your face]

There is something behind their lack of interaction that they are avoiding.

On the other hand, when they do look you in the eye, it shows that they are paying attention to you. You have their full attention and they are connecting with you on either a mental or emotional level.

5. Shifting around in their chair

If you are having a conversation with someone and they are fidgeting or shifting around in their seat, that is a social cue that they are finding the conversation boring or that they are uncomfortable with what you are saying. [Read: No friends? Uncomfortable reasons your life’s how it is]

Shifting around in a chair is their way of telling you that they would rather be somewhere other than where they are. 

It is a nervous habit that some people have that shows their disinterest, have other things on their mind or just don’t want to be where they are.

6. Crossing your arms

When someone is crossing their arms while talking to you, they are guarding themselves against you and what you have to say. It is almost like a sign that your messages aren’t being heard or wanted. [Read: Female body language – 15 things they do and what it really means]

A defensive move, if someone has crossed arms, you will often find yourself doing the same thing. 

It is a way of closing off a conversation that you aren’t agreeing with or are trying not to have a conversation with a person who you don’t really want to have one with.

7. The way someone dresses

We don’t just put our clothes on without thinking and feeling. Often, we find clothes that fit the mood we are in. [Read: How to dress sexy – 29 subtle and classy ways to make them lust for you]

Whether it is the color of the dress or its length, what we put on to wear is a huge social clue about who and what we are.

So, it’s important to keep an eye on how someone dresses when they’re with you. For example, if a guy asks a girl to hang out and she shows up in sweatpants looking like she just rolled out of bed, then she didn’t put in much effort.

This is a social cue saying “I’m not romantically interested in you because if I was, I would have put effort into how I look.” [Read: Lazy girlfriend – 15 ways to help her change and signs to give up or break up]

That is why there is such a thing as a power suit or a “night out” outfit. The clothes you wear send a message to those around you about what you want and who you are, whether you recognize it or not.

8. Facial expressions

One social cue that is unmistakable and often uncontrollable is the facial expressions that we display to others.

If you are upset, angered, or happy, it will almost always show on your face, even if you try to hide it. [Read: 18 must-know signs to read any man’s body language like a book]

The mood that you feel on the inside typically shows on the outside by the way that your face appears. So, a word of advice, don’t approach someone who visibly looks angry with you.

9. Their smile

A smile is not just a smile, it is a social cue about how someone really feels about something. [Read: Why is talking to people so hard and 57 secrets to talk to anyone and charm them]

There is a true difference between a genuine smile and one that is forced; they are very different things.

If someone is only giving you a half smile, that isn’t showing that they are pleased. That is sending the message that they want you to think they are pleased, but they really aren’t. 

A genuine smile is something where the message is clear, something or someone has made a person happy.

10. Checking their phone

If someone is checking their mobile device, that is a social cue that you are boring them or that they are disinterested in what you have to say. Don’t mistake it for being busy. [Read: Why phubbing is the rudest thing you could do to someone]

If they can’t wait until you are done talking to focus on whatever is happening on their phone, the social cue sent is that the mobile device is way more important than you.

11. They suddenly stop talking or communicating

If someone is suddenly silent or seems to drop out of the conversation, then the chances are good that you have said something offensive or that they don’t want to talk about the subject anymore. 

Shutting down communication is often a sign that someone wants to end the conversation they are having. [Read: Ghosting – what it is, 63 signs, reasons to ghost, and how it affects both people]

12. Mirroring what you do

If you notice social cues in someone else, it might be a good idea to check yourself. 

When someone crosses their arms or gives you a look of excitement, even if they don’t seem so, they might be mirroring your social cues to tell you that they are on board and listening.

Before you assume that they are sending you alternate signs, take a look at what you are showing them. They might just be mirroring your actions and cues. [Read: 20 unmistakable signs your friend is crushing on you]

13. Verbal affirmation

When you are having a conversation with someone, and they suddenly chime in with one word, they are sending you the message that they are listening attentively. Don’t misunderstand it for stealing the show or being overpowering.

Sometimes just shouting out a phrase or word is their way of saying “you have my attention and I am actively listening and engaging.” Even if you think it is disruptive, it might not mean to be. So, temper your replies accordingly.

Sometimes listening to the social cues that someone is sending you is more important than the words coming from their mouths. [Read: Words of affirmation – how to use it, 56 signs, tips, and examples to say it right]

14. Facing toward or away

Body language is so important to social cues. Many people think that words are more important than their actions. But as the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.” [Read: Body language attraction – 58 male and females signs and how to read and use it]

While there are many different aspects to body language, how someone positions their body in relation to another person says a lot about how they feel. 

When you like someone and are interested in talking with them, then your body will be facing toward the other person. That is because you feel alright opening yourself up to them and giving them attention.

However, if someone’s body is facing away from another person – or even sideways – then that is a message that they are not very interested in talking with them. [Read: Does he like me? 101 subtle signs and body language clues guys can’t hide]

This is a subconscious message that says “leave me alone because I’m annoyed.” It could be for other reasons too, such as they are hurrying somewhere else. Either way, it’s a sign that the other person should back off.

15. Sighing or yawning

Sure, sometimes people just don’t get enough sleep and they’re just genuinely tired so they yawn. But that’s not the kind of yawning we’re talking about here.

The other kind of yawning is when someone finds a situation incredibly boring. For some reason, even if they aren’t tired, they might subconsciously start to yawn as an instinctual response. [Read: 27 clear signs she’s not interested in you anymore and getting bored]

Yawning can be ambiguous because you don’t know if they’re sleepy. However, sighing is a whole different thing because it is more purposeful.

Think about it. When we sigh, it’s because we’re not happy with something. Or we’re annoyed or disgusted or simply just disagree.

Whatever the reason, sighing is not usually a positive nonverbal message. It is usually some sort of rejection or disagreement. [Read: Friendzoned by a girl – 25 signs she’s just not interested in dating you]

So, if you see someone sigh, you should ask them about it or change what you’re saying or doing.

16. Silence

Some people love silence, and some people hate it. And there are different kinds of silences too.

First, there is the kind of silence when you are physically present with someone. Maybe the conversation is awkward, or they can’t think of anything to say. [Read: 35 best text conversation starters for the shy and socially awkward]

This kind of silence isn’t a very positive social vibe.

Then, there is the kind of silence when you’re not physically present. It’s not the literal kind of silence you experience when you’re with someone in person.

Instead, this kind of silence is when you don’t hear from someone. [Read: The psychology of ignoring someone – why we do it and ways to fix it]

For example, if you went out on a first date and the person who asks you out never contacts you again, then they are sending you the message through their silence that they don’t like you enough to go out with you again.

Another kind of non-physical silence is through text messages. If you send a message and you don’t hear from them for hours, days, or even weeks, that’s telling you to back off and they’re not that interested in talking to you.

17. Physical touch

Usually, we think of touch as an intimate gesture. For example, when we like someone, we hug them, hold their hand, cuddle, or touch them in a flirty kind of way. [Read: How to be flirty by touch and use subtle body language to seduce anyone]

Touch can also be used to convey power over another person. It has been found that the more powerful people *such as a boss* touch the less powerful people *such as an employee* more often.

So, there are all different kinds of touch, and they all have their own individual meanings that need to be figured out.

However, the lack of touch can also be a social cue as well.

If you’re on a date with someone and they sit far away from you and purposely don’t try to hold your hand or put their arm around you, then they’re showing a lack of interest. [Read: Does she like me? 32 subtle signs she sees you as more than a friend]

In this case, they are giving you the message that they have low-to-no interest in you. Because if they did, they would probably touch you at some point.

Learning to read other people’s body language isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you understand these social cues and what they might be telling you, then you will probably have an easier time in social situations. 

You will take chances when you might not have, or back off when it appears that you are coming on too strong or making someone feel uncomfortable.

How to learn social cues

Most people naturally and instinctually learn how to learn social cues from the time they are an infant. This is because the nonverbal aspects of communication are the most meaningful for babies, who don’t understand language yet.

As they get older, people start learning social cues through what is called “parallel play.” They start to pick up on the rhythm and flow of interactions and it gets better with time. [Read: How to be more social – 22 ways to genuinely connect with others]

But as we discussed earlier in this article, some people don’t really develop this ability very well, so they need a little extra help. For those people, there are some things that can be done to try to help them learn to read social cues.

1. Ask others to teach you

Many people who aren’t good at reading social cues can’t really learn by themselves very well.

So, if that’s you, you could ask a friend or family member, or even get the help of a therapist to teach you the different things you should look for and what they mean.

2. Write the social cues down

It would also be helpful to actually write down what you learn from other people. You might think you’ll remember, but you might not. [Read: 19 secrets to not be shy and awkward around your crush and talk casually]

So, when you put it on paper, you can go back and constantly review it all in your mind until you learn it.

3. Practice

Just like any skill, you can’t get better at something if you don’t practice. For example, you won’t become a better basketball player if you don’t play basketball. So, you need to practice reading the social cues that you learn.

4. Stick with it

If you want to get better at reading social cues, then you can’t just try it a few times and expect to be an expert. It might not come naturally to you, so that’s why you can’t give up if you want long-lasting change.

[Read: The rules of attraction as explained by science]

When in a conversation, or communicating with someone, it is important to listen to their words. And also, what their body is telling you to get a good idea of what they really mean and feel on the inside. Then you’ll be a master of social cues.

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Carol Morgan LP
Dr. Carol Morgan
Dr. Carol Morgan has a Ph.D. in communication and is a professor at Wright State University where she loves corrupting young minds. As a relationship and succes...