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Understanding Different Types of Social Cues: Improve Your Nonverbal Communication Skills

Social cues are an essential part of human communication and interaction. Though we may not always be conscious of it, we are constantly sending and receiving wordless signals that convey our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. For those who have difficulty picking up on or interpreting these nonverbal cues, social situations can prove challenging. This comprehensive guide examines the various types of social cues, what they typically signify, why some people struggle to read them, and how to improve your social skills.

Understanding Different Types of Social Cues
Understanding Different Types of Social Cues

What Are Social Cues and Why Do They Matter?

Social cues are all the nonverbal ways we communicate and interact with others. This includes body language, facial expressions, vocal tones, proximity, touching, and more. It’s estimated that 60-65% of communication between people is nonverbal.

Understanding social cues allows us to better interpret others’ emotions, intentions, and reactions. It helps conversations flow smoothly and allows us to respond appropriately in social situations. Misreading cues can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and social awkwardness.

For those who have difficulty recognizing typical social cues, social interactions can feel confusing, stressful, and uncomfortable. Conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and social anxiety can all affect how someone sends and receives nonverbal signals.

Types of Social Cues

There are many different types of social cues we use to communicate and interact without words. Let’s explore some of the most common categories.

Body Language Cues

Body language refers to the signals we convey through our posture, gestures, mannerisms, and use of space.


How we hold our bodies communicates a lot. Standing up straight with shoulders back displays confidence, while slumped shoulders may indicate sadness or insecurity. Crossed arms can signal defensiveness or dislike, while open arms express welcome and warmth. Posture can also simply reflect physical comfort.


Gestures like waving, pointing, or giving a thumbs up add emphasis and meaning to our words. Some common gestures include:

  • Finger pointing to direct attention
  • Palm out to signal “stop”
  • Waving hands to say “hello” or “goodbye”
  • Thumbs up for “okay” or “good”


Mirroring is when we unconsciously mimic another person’s gestures or body language. It signals that we are engaged and attentive.


Fidgeting or restless movement like foot tapping may reflect boredom, anxiety, or inattention. However, some fidgeting may help people (like those with ADHD) focus. Consider the context before interpreting fidgeting as disinterest.

Use of space

How closely we stand or sit next to others gives clues about our relationship and comfort level. Intimate distance is 1-2 feet, personal distance is 2-4 feet, social distance is 4-12 feet, and public distance is 12+ feet.

Facial Expressions

Our facial expressions are a primary way we convey emotions and reactions nonverbally. Pay attention to the whole face, especially the eyes and mouth.


Eye contact signals interest and attention, while looking away can suggest discomfort. Widened eyes indicate surprise or fear. Narrowed, tense eyes may show anger or confusion.


Frowns signal displeasure, while smiles (that reach the eyes) show joy. Pursing or tightening lips can mean anger, fear, or distrust. An open mouth can convey surprise.

Vocal Cues

How we say something is just as important as what we say. Vocal cues like tone, inflection, and volume add meaning to our words.


A lively, animated tone holds attention while a flat, monotonous tone can bore listeners. Tone can also convey mood—angry, sad, cheerful, sarcastic, etc.


Inflection refers to the natural rises and falls in our pitch and volume as we speak. Varied inflection makes speech engaging. A lack of inflection suggests disinterest or dissatisfaction.


Volume indicates emphasis. Whispering may signal secrecy, while yelling can communicate strong emotion. Mumbling may reflect nervousness or lack of confidence.

Other Nonverbal Cues


Proxemics refers to personal space zones. Standing too far or close for a given situation reveals discomfort.


Clothing choices reflect context and personality. Formal attire suits professional settings, while casualwear fits social occasions.

Difficulty Reading Social Cues

While most social cues are universally understood, some people have difficulty sending and interpreting these nonverbal behaviors. This makes social interactions confusing and challenging to navigate.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle reading subtle social cues like facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Common ASD characteristics include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Not matching facial expressions to words
  • Speaking in an unusual tone
  • Misinterpreting others’ social cues

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety leads to extreme fear of being judged. Those with social anxiety may:

  • Avoid eye contact due to discomfort
  • Perceive happy faces as unapproachable
  • Appear anxious or distracted in social settings


ADHD can make it hard to read social nuances like body language, sarcasm, and subtext. Common ADHD social challenges include:

  • Interrupting conversations
  • Fidgeting, perceived as anxiety
  • Becoming distracted and missing social cues
  • Impulsively saying hurtful things

Tips for Improving Your Social Skills

If you struggle to understand the subtleties of social interaction, don’t worry—your social skills can improve with consistent practice. Here are some tips:

  • Observe how people interact in real life or TV shows. Take note of facial cues, body language, and tone.
  • Practice conversing with friends or strangers. Ask for feedback on your eye contact, gestures, and listening skills.
  • Watch yourself in a mirror or on video. Note expressions, posture, fidgeting, etc.
  • Start small with brief interactions to build confidence.
  • Join a social skills group led by a therapist to learn among peers.
  • Explain your challenges to close friends and family. Ask for patience as you work to improve.

Be patient with yourself. Improving social awareness and nonverbal communication takes time and practice. Seek support from a mental health professional if needed.


Our ability to understand and appropriately respond to social cues is key for smooth social interactions. While most people naturally pick up on nonverbal behaviors, conditions like ASD, social anxiety, and ADHD can make reading social cues difficult.

By becoming aware of the different types of social cues and practicing your skills, you can begin feeling more confident socially. Focus on body language, facial expressions, vocal tones, and other nonverbal behaviors to hone your social awareness.

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