Using Social Cues and Clues
to Your Advantage

Woman with Arms Crossed

Social cues are verbal or non-verbal signals that serve to guide conversations and interactions.  Facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, gestures, and personal space allowances all help us "read" each other.  

Whether the message comes through consciously or subliminally, you know if you are welcome or not, if you can trust someone, or if someone is happy to see you - or not.  But the only way you will receive this valuable information is when you remain aware in social situations.

Social Cues and Clues

Learning social cues and clues is equivalent to learning a language.  You learn much faster and more in-depth when you use it often.  Fortunately, you probably encounter other people and interact with them on a daily basis, so there is ample opportunity for practice!

Do any of these social clues feel familiar?

  • You are at a networking event and want to find someone to talk to.  There is a young woman standing alone at the back of the room, but her arms are crossed and she isn't looking around much.  You instead approach the young man who has just left another conversation and makes eye contact with you.
  • At a cafe you notice a few people at another table pointing at you while in conversation.  Are they talking about you?  Are they asking you to come over to their table?  Are they gossiping about someone else?  Pointing is easily misread and better avoided.
  • Remember how upset you used to get when your sister came into your room without knocking?  Before you enter someone's office, perhaps you should knock, ask if it's a good time to visit, then listen carefully for the answer before opening the door. 
  • When you're speaking with someone and he starts to look away, ask an open-ended question and give him a chance to talk.  Odds are, boredom has crept in.
  • You get the impression the young woman in your calculus class is depressed.  She always slouches in her seat and rarely smiles.  But then one night you see her out friends and she's standing up straight and laughing - a different person.  Maybe she just doesn't like calculus?
  • While speaking with a friend at a party, Janice walks up and says, "Hi."  You know your friend doesn't like her, but you want to be polite so you tentatively ask her to join you without making eye contact or smiling.  Do you think Janice got the message?

These little hints provide information that can be positive or negative.  They can also be consistently true, or true for a particular moment. 

As you go about your day, try "reading" some of the people you encounter.  You might also go to a public place and observe for a while.  The expressions, gestures, and overall body language we each use are constantly telling our story.

Advancing Your Skills

Socializing is a part of life.  Whether done with family only at holidays, or regularly with your circle of friends, you will be called upon to start a conversation, introduce someone or yourself, enjoy a meal with others, and attend a meeting.

The only way you can get (somewhat) comfortable interacting with other people is to practice regularly. 

  • Make a game of it.  Each time you attend a social gathering, set a goal for it.  You might introduce yourself to three new people and have short conversations with each.  Maybe you want to introduce those three people to three other people and practice politely leaving those conversations.  Set your goals around things you're least comfortable with.
  • Ask open-ended questions.  This type of question get you off the hook for a while and provide an opportunity to learn a lot about others.
    "How is it that you chose to attend (name of school)?"
    "I haven't been here long.  What are some interesting things to see and experience here?" 
  • Ask for help!  We all need help and there is no shame in asking someone you like and trust to practice interacting with you.  This way you'll know if you are lacking in eye contact, if your handshake isn't up to par, or if you aren't listening.
  • Write things down.  Wherever you go, it's a good idea to have a written list of conversation-starter questions.  Even if you don't use them, simply having the list in your pocket or bag can do wonders for your confidence!

Social cues and clues are here to help get you through encounters, gatherings, and events.  Once you learn to recognize them, and how you use them yourself, you will be more comfortable when in the presence of others.


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