Types of social cues (with applications and recognitions)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Social cues can be verbal or non-verbal communication signals you receive from other people through their expressions and body language. People may study your reaction in social situations and understand the message you intend to communicate from just a single physical signal. Having the ability to respond to social cues can be an incredible skill to becoming socially adept. In this article, we discuss several types of social cues, including how to convey them using their applications in a conversation.

Related: The importance of nonverbal communication in the workplace

Types of social cues

There are various types of social cues that naturally develop in adults as they learn communication techniques from their environment. You can combine different social cues to express yourself to others in the workplace. Both verbal and nonverbal behaviours can influence how others perceive you in a social setting. Knowing various social cues can also help you understand what others are feeling and determine an appropriate response. An extensive list of social cues is available below:

Voice pitch and tone

Voice pitch, volume and tonal variation can be effective ways to express the precise meaning of what you're saying during a conversation. Your articulation, pitch, inflection and volume can all generate social cues. Adjusting your tone during a conversation may change the mood of the conversation. For example, speaking in a firm tone can indicate how serious the subject is. Varying your pitch while speaking can help provide others with context for your message. For instance, increasing your pitch in the last one or two words of a phrase indicates that you're asking a question.

Voice pitch and tone can also change the meaning of the message, particularly when you use sarcasm. Sarcasm provides the social cue that the speaker means the opposite of what they're saying. A sarcastic tone typically involves a rising and falling pitch, and may also include exaggerated or lengthened syllables to emphasise verbal irony.

Maintaining personal space

The physical boundaries between people may convey their interest in a conversation. For instance, people may stand closely together when discussing common interests but begin backing away when they want to end the conversation. Many people have their own preferences for the ideal amount of personal space they want when interacting with others. Paying attention to whether someone leans in or backs away while you're speaking can help you be respectful of their own personal boundaries.

Eye contact

Maintaining eye contact is a social cue that portrays your confidence and engagement. By looking directly into someone's eyes, you can establish a connection with someone and may also determine whether they're feeling confident or anxious. Looking at someone while they're talking is a common social indication that you're interested in what they're saying, while looking away can show a range of feelings from boredom to stress. Using eye contact is an especially important social cue in interviews because it shows that you're confident in your skills and are actively listening to the interviewer.

Mouth movement

The way people move their mouths is a big part of their overall facial expressions. Paying attention to the way someone's mouth moves can be a good way to identify their emotions and perceive social cues. Your mouth corners draw upwards when you're happy, sarcastic or just smiling. You may purse your lips or twist your lips from side to side when feeling uncertain or frustrated. Some people bite their lips or clench their jaw when experiencing stress.

Touching

Touch is another form of social cue conveyed in communication. When you rest your hands on someone else's shoulder, it can be a caring gesture to them, while a shoulder tap may be a sign you want attention from them. It's essential to pay attention to other people's responses to touch. Interpreting this social cue correctly can prevent misunderstanding and disagreement in a conversation.

Choice of attire

Clothing can often be a social cue that expresses aspects of someone's personality, background and values. Your personal style, including outfits and hairstyle, can communicate your creativity or your cultural background. The clothing people wear in the workplace can often provide social cues about the workplace culture. For example, if most people wear casual clothing in the workplace, this may indicate a laid back team environment. During interviews, you're likely to dress officially in a way that shows professionalism to convey you're serious about the position and put effort into your personal presentation.

There are three main categories of clothing for different social situations:

  • Formal wear: These are smart clothes you wear for formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and formal dinners. Formal clothing may include evening gowns and tuxedos.

  • Casual wear: This includes clothes you wear daily, including jeans, t-shirts and shorts. People wear casual clothes for shopping, manual tasks and family outings.

  • Business casual: A business casual dress code is often appropriate for the workplace and professional situations. It includes button-up shirts, suit jackets and knee-length skirts.

Related: Are jeans business casual and how to wear them to work?

Gesturing

You can effectively convey social cues through gestures and hand movements during a conversation. Sometimes you can use your hand gestures to emphasise what you're saying. Moving your hands can show enthusiasm for a topic or indicate the importance of a particular phrase. For example, you may spread your hands out in front of you when discussing the broader scope of your plans for a project to illustrate your ideas.

Gestures can also have specific meanings. Lifting your hand upright with your palm out can mean 'stop'. An index finger pointing in a particular direction can be a gesture to show that you want people to look where you're pointing. A single gesture can have multiple interpretations depending on the context of the situation and your community's culture. For instance, waving your hand side by side can mean goodbye in one region and hello in another. Considering possible cultural differences can help you determine the correct way to interpret social cues from someone's body language.

Attentiveness

The way people pay attention to a conversation or presentation can be a social cue that shows their interest and focus. Pauses, body language and distractions can indicate whether you're successfully engaging your audience. When your audience sits with their toes and shoulders facing you, it can imply that they're attentive to whatever you're saying. If someone's looking at their phone regularly, this can show that they aren't focusing on the conversation. You can use this information to either change the subject or use conversational techniques to make your discussion or presentation more engaging.

Writing tone

When people communicate over text, the writing style and words they use for their message can convey a range of social information. Many people write emails in the workplace with direct sentences and a formal tone to show that they're discussing a serious professional topic. When interacting with close colleagues or making a friendly request, you may add exclamation points or even use emoticons to incorporate a casual, happy tone in your written communications. Pay attention to the vocabulary and writing style of incoming messages to help you decide on the ideal tone and style of your response.

Related: Nonverbal communication skills: definition and examples

Importance of interpreting social cues in a conversation

Social cues can be essential in the following way:

Establishing whether the audience is receptive to your point

Nodding your head in a conversation can show you agree with the speaker. It can be a nonverbal response to the question or a statement in a dialogue. Interpreting impressions of disapproval in a conversation may help you change or devise ways of handling the situation that may lead to tension. Social cues in a discussion can also help you analyse points that require clarification. These may help you determine whether to continue with a project or make changes to clarify certain aspects of your work.

Determining audience engagement in a conversation

Determining how engaged your audience is in the conversation is useful for deciding whether to continue or end the discussion. Maintaining eye contact in a conversation can prove your engagement. You can tell the interest of your audience in a presentation by assessing their attentiveness and identifying any periods of silence. You can quickly establish whether your audience needs clarification or further explanation in a conversation by gauging their engagement levels.

Assessing levels of comfort

Smiling, leaning towards the speaker or sitting in a relaxed manner can be a sign that you're comfortable. Physical touch like a handshake also shows familiarity and acceptance to the person with whom you're engaging in a conversation. Understanding the comfort levels of others around you can help you modify your behaviour to promote positive interactions.

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