When someone rolls their eyes, gives a wide smile, or angrily crosses their arms, they’re sending a message, or what’s more formally known as a social cue. “Social cues are verbal and nonverbal cues that allow us as humans to comprehend how someone is feeling and what they are thinking at that specific point in time — these cues involve things like body language, gesturing, facial expressions, proximity, tone, etc.,” says Karen Donaldson, celebrity communication + body language expert and certified confidence coach.
Many times, we can pick up on these cues, but in other instances, they may not always be so clear. It’s also important to note and be sensitive to the fact that interpreting social cues doesn’t come easily to all — for example, people who have ADHD, are on the autism spectrum, or are dealing with certain mental health conditions, may have trouble with certain aspects of perceiving social cues and have other ways of expressing themselves.
We synced up with a few experts to learn more about social cues, so keep scrolling to read through some common (and perhaps not so common) examples of cues and what to look for when interpreting them.
Facial expressions are the only universal social cue, says Jan Hargrave, body language expert and author of five books. “There are seven universal expressions which include anger, fear, contempt, happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust,” she adds. After all, a smile is a smile anywhere you go — although it may not always be genuine. If a smile is indeed sincere, Hargrave points out that it’ll involve the whole face (aka the corner of the eyes will “crinkle”). A fake smile, which she dubs a “grapefruit smile,” will involve just the lower part of the face and lips pulling far back. Here’s another interesting tidbit — one study set out to take a look at trustworthy vs. untrustworthy facial expressions and determined that a slight raise of the eyebrows and a slight smile was deemed the most trustworthy.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable when someone is inching a little too close? Enter personal space. Here’s one easy way to think about it: “In life, we always go towards things we like and away from the things we don’t — it’s the same when it comes to body language,” notes Hargrave. The term proxemics was coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall and refers to the distance maintained between people as they interact. He identified four zones of interpersonal distance to characterize Western culture: intimate distance, which involves direct contact with another person; personal distance, which ranges from one to four feet; social distance, where more formal business and social interactions tend to happen; and public distance, where no physical contact takes place (think airports, sidewalks and large shopping centers). Just as facial expressions can communicate a significant deal of nonverbal information, so can the amount of physical space between individuals.
As Donaldson tells Sunday Edit, hand gestures can be quite informative. “When people use their hands and their palms are facing upwards — it signals honesty and transparency (I have nothing to hide),” she says, adding that conversely when someone hides their hands as they speak, this can “signal dishonesty or showcase that the person is uncomfortable.” Hargrave elaborates on the importance of hands and hand gestures in our social interactions, highlighting that people tend to generally trust you faster when they see some kind of hand motion taking place while you’re talking. “Hands play a huge role in our lives when you think about it — hands gave birth to you, hand-holding is commonplace in a ritual like marriage and a loved one might hold your hand if you’re sick.” That being said, she points out that hands can also harm you, which is why you may feel a bit leery if someone is talking with their hands behind their back.
Head nodding is used as a cue to signal understanding and interest. “Head nod is a sign of acknowledgment — two head nods typically mean the person is agreeing with you and listening, but three quick nods or more often means the individual is asking you to speed up what you’re saying so that they can get in their two cents,” notes Hargrave. She adds that since many of us are still working remotely, it’s beneficial to incorporate a positive cue — like a head nod — while on Zoom meetings to demonstrate acknowledgment.
Eye contact is another major one in the realm of social cues. “If someone is looking away or distracted while speaking to you, it means their attention is not solely on you and they are probably ready to move on to something or someone else,” says Donaldson, who also has an app called Speak Confident. Not a great feeling, so whenever you’re chatting with another person, be sure to look them directly in the eyes to demonstrate that you’re paying attention and interested in what they have to say.
Have you ever sat across from someone during your early morning commute who suddenly yawns and then find yourself doing the same shortly thereafter? Well, this is what we call mirroring. Mirroring is a social cue that can be done both consciously and unconsciously — much of the time it’s unconscious like in the example of mirroring a yawn, however, it can also be a learned technique to help in certain instances (i.e., your career). “People tend to be drawn to others who have similarities to them and the same goes with body language,” says Hargrave. She elaborates that mirroring can be used in a business setting, like a sales meeting, to build rapport. The key, though, is to not make it obvious. “Say your business prospect rubs the bottom of their chin with their left hand. Instead of you doing that same gesture directly after, maybe you briefly tap your pen on a notepad and then go to rub the bottom of your chin,” Hargrave advises. You’ll also want to steer clear of mirroring negative body language like the crossing of the arms or turning away.
One cue you may not have really given any thought to before is pupil dilation. “When someone is attracted to you their eyes will give them away — that’s because our pupils dilate when we see something that’s visually stimulating or something that we like,” Donaldson explains.
Someone’s posture can reveal quite a bit, too. “It can be easy to get super comfortable and start to slouch when sitting or standing, however, don’t do it,” advises Donaldson. People who sit upright are viewed as attentive and someone who wants to be part of the conversation. She continues: “When you lean back too much, you increase the distance between you and the other person, and it can give the impression that you’re disinterested and/or inattentive.” Hargrave adds that an individual with a constricted posture might be feeling nervous or anxious.
Feet positioning is a nonverbal cue that can help you know whether the other person is engaged or ready to take off. It’s a good sign if you’re conversing with someone else and their feet are flat on the floor and pointed directly toward you (with legs uncrossed), as Hargrave points out this can signal the person is engaged and open as the discussion is happening. If their toes are pointed away from you, Donaldson adds it may mean they are ready to leave the convo. Tapping feet can also be a giveaway for nervous, bored or anxious feelings.
How to Practice Reading Social Cues
If you feel as though you’re struggling with reading social cues, Hargrave suggests observing interactions you’re not involved in, like watching a soap opera on mute and trying to determine whether the actors are sending positive or negative cues. Soap operas have no shortage of drama and emotion, so they serve as good practice when it comes to deciphering cues like body language, facial expressions and hand gestures. Lastly, don’t be expected to get it right all of the time. Social interactions can be layered and tricky, so give yourself a break if you misinterpret a cue or are finding it difficult at times.