A Guide to Social Cues and Social Norms in Society

social cues in society

What Are Social Cues?

Social cues are the non-verbal aspects of our communication. They speak louder than our words in our conversations. So it’s not so much about what we say as it is about how it’s said. Some research shows that non-verbal communication leaves between 63% and 93% more impact than the actual words spoken. So says Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results.

Through social cues, we reveal our emotions, intentions, and other information about our feelings.

Social cues help us create ties with others. With a strong understanding of social cues, you can tell if the person with whom you’re communicating wants to continue in the conversation with you.

Key Takeaways

  • Social cues are those aspects of our communication with others that are expressed through body language rather than words. Eye contact, hand motions, facial expressions, tone of voice, personal boundaries, and other nonverbal aspects of communication are examples.
  • Since our non-verbal communication speaks louder than our words, it’s important that we pay attention to the messages our non-verbal communication is transmitting.

How Many Types of Social Cues Are There?

The region of the brain that controls our emotions is responsible for our body language. As a result, social cues are not planned expressions, but rather natural and honest expressions of our feelings. However, a single social cue expression should not be used to define the message a person is transmitting

You can get a better picture of what they are thinking or experiencing by observing their entire body language.

It should be noted that everyone does not use the same social cues to communicate how they feel or think. However, the following is a general interpretation of social cues.

Facial Expression

The face sends signals of how a person is feeling. They are the most obvious social cues. There are countless muscles in the face that send signals about how a person is feeling at every point in time.

Facial expressions are the same across cultures. A raised eyebrow could indicate shock, surprise, or doubt. A large smile on our faces indicates happiness, and a frown shows a person is upset.

In the digital space, facial expression is often not possible when using text-based forms of communication. As a result, people use emojis to communicate how they feel or what they think during a conversation.

Body Language

Body language can send signals without any words being said. It is the most powerful method we use in communicating with others. The way we carry our bodies shows, to a large extent, how we feel or what we think. And it transmits a lot about who we are to others.

Examples of body language include the following:

  • Nodding in agreement or disagreement with what someone is saying.
  • Shrugging the shoulders when you don’t know something.
  • Slumped shoulders indicate tiredness or feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
  • The crossing of the arms could indicate disapproval of what the speaker is saying.

It should be noted that there is a tendency for body language to be misunderstood. If there is a mismatch between your words and your body language, a listener could misinterpret what you actually mean.

It creates trust and helps you build stronger connections when your body language and words are in sync. However, if they don’t match, the person listening to you will doubt your sincerity.


The way words are spoken can put meaning to what is being said. Speaking in a raised voice or pitch can mean anger or enthusiasm. The same words spoken in different tones will not convey the same meaning.

Want to get better at picking up on social cues? Take our free DISC Personality Assessment! 

How Do You Identify Social Cues?

In interacting with others and honing your social skills, the ability to identify social cues and understand how to respond to them is a vital skill to have. However, some people with certain health conditions like ADHD or autism find it difficult to interpret social cues.

Here are a few ways to pick up or identify social cues.

  • When a person wants to end a conversation, they may look around the room, at their watch, or at the door. You will also hear words like “I have somewhere to get to” or “it’s been nice talking with you”.
  • When someone is gradually moving away from you, or moving backwards while you are trying to hold or hug them, it may mean that you are invading their personal space. Try to respect how they feel.
  • In voice intonation, a higher pitch means excitement, and a lower one may indicate the speaker is saying something more serious.
  • When someone you are speaking to has their eyes on you, it shows that you have their attention. But when they are constantly looking away or at their watch or phone, they are distracted or not interested in the conversation.

What are Social Norms?

Individuals who belong to a group, culture, or society are expected to behave in certain ways. These are known as social norms. Saying “please” and “thank you”, as well as standing in line and waiting your turn, are examples of  expected appropriate behaviours. There are social norms that are deduced from social cues.

What Does It Mean Not To Pick Up On Social Cues?

A frustrated lady wrote to Carolyn Hax, a Washington Post Advice columnist, asking guidance on how to deal with a friend who doesn’t grasp social cues.

” Dear Carolyn, I need some help setting boundaries with a friend who has a hard time reading social cues. PShe regularly interrupts and talks over me, dominates conversation with stories about people I’ve never met, continues texting after I say I’m going to bed, and overstays her welcome when she visits.

“For example, I say I need to pick my kid up between 3 and 4, and at 4 she’s still sitting in my living room while I practically pack her bag for her. I don’t think any of it is malicious — I think she’s just socially inept and, at the same time, a bit desperate for connection… ”

As expressed in the above complaint, ignorance of social cues has implications for how you are perceived by others. The inability to pick up social cues damages your connections and relationships with others. It has an impact not only on your personal life, but also on your professional relationships. Ultimately, it influences how your personal and professional connections will treat, respect, or trust you.

How to Improve Your Recognition of Social Cues

Develop your emotional intelligence: Emotional intelligence involves understanding your own emotions and how they influence your behaviour and attitude. You also need to understand other people’s emotions so you will get the right signal they are transmitting. Being emotionally intelligent helps you send the right signals that matches up your words.

Ask for feedback: tell a trusted friend to tell you how you behave towards them. Or what they sense you are saying with your non-verbal expressions.

Learn how to use inclusive language and recognize the signs for when someone is using it with you.

Observe People During Conversations: It may be difficult to practice social cues when you are engaged in conversations with others. However, you can improve by observing the social signals people are sending to one another during their conversations.

Observe Yourself: Practice having a conversation looking at the mirror and observe the things you see that you would like to change.

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