Hidden Signals

The Hidden Social Dimensions of Conversations

You may pride yourself that you are good at the “mechanics” of conversation — vocabulary, grammar, pronunciations, etc. — but if you don’t realize that these also have social dimensions, you are missing a lot of social signals.

Choosing your words is not simply a matter of semantics, and there are also various options available to you as to how you pronounce the sounds in those words. Most people (more-or-less unconsciously) manipulate these variables to create different speech styles for different situations. People with social communication challenges are frequently accused of sounding “robotic” because they do not alter their speech patterns from situation to situation, generally adhering closely to formal, prescriptively “correct” speech.
“I’m delighted to make your acquaintance,” “It’s very nice to meet you,” and “Nice to meetcha” all have the same basic, semantic interpretation, but send different social messages: depending on your formality level, you project a different image, give off different “vibes” about how friendly you are, and elicit different responses from people.


We haven’t included a section on sentence structures (even though these also have social dimensions) because the difference between using interrogative, imperative and declarative sentences is covered in polite = indirect. There are some other issues to keep in mind — e.g., ending sentences with prepositions is casual and friendly (“I saw the guy you gave the present to”), while rearranging your sentence to avoid doing so (“I saw the guy to whom you gave the present”) is formal and stiff — but not really enough to warrant a whole section.

In much the same way, how much you say is not simply a function of how interested you are in a topic or how much you know — it sends a strong social signal about how you see the people you’re talking to. In order to be successful, both turn-taking and changing the topic depend on cooperation with other participants in the conversation. Finally, story-telling, which might seem like a solo performance, is also inescapably a social act, with associated rights and responsibilities that cannot be shirked without social consequences.

One response to “Hidden Signals

  1. Sigal says:

    “Choosing your words is not simply …”
    The spaces around the word ‘words’ (which is a link) are underlined.
    Choosing your words is (wrong)
    Choosing your words is (right)

    The same goes for the next link, i.e. the space prior to the word ‘sounds’.

    Thanks for writing this site!

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