Social communication is how we continually signal to others (verbally and nonverbally) our intentions and attitudes, whether those be friendly, or romantic, or aggressive and challenging. It is how we “read” the intentions and attitudes of others around us. It’s how we know when to keep going and when to back off.

Here are are some signs that you have social communication challenges:

  • Other people seem to read each other’s minds, processing information and messages that were never put into words, and they seem to unfairly expect you to do the same.
  • You’ve been told that you appear angry, aggressive, rude, abrupt, cold, unfeeling, bored (etc.) when in fact you did not feel such emotions or intend any disrespect.
  • You’ve been told, “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it,” but you don’t know what that means.
  • You don’t change the way you speak from situation to situation (unless you get angry or upset), and you either don’t notice when other people switch speech styles, or you don’t know how to interpret such shifts.
  • You communicate well with people who have known you for a long time, but you find it difficult to make new social connections.
  • During a conversation, people have been known to insult you, snap at you, or yell at you, and it seems to come out of nowhere.
  • It seems to you that hardly anyone says what they mean or means what they say, and they don’t appreciate it when you are direct and honest.

So why can't people just say what they mean, and mean what they say?

We use our words to express complex ideas, facts, narratives; such things cannot be communicated any other way. Most of our social signalling (showing our emotions, attitudes, and intentions) is accomplished nonverbally through gaze, facial expression, posture, proxemics (how far or close we are from the people we’re talking to) and in the speech style that we use (tone of voice, pauses, hedging or lack thereof, rate and volume of speech, formal vs. informal words and pronunciations, how directly we express ourselves).

Evolutionarily, the nonlinguistic system of social signalling certainly predates language: other mammals also use many of the same means to express similar messages. Most creatures have a ritual in which they signal to the opposite sex their intention/desire to mate; likewise, many species feature ritualized displays of aggression and challenge. The proto-hominid who could not recognize aggression would be clubbed over the head so the aggressor could steal his meat. This would have been literally a matter of life or death, so multiple means developed for “reading” one another’s emotions and intentions. Human language, an amazing leap forward in communication, is a relative newcomer, and it did not replace the primate systems of communication that had already developed. No matter what you say, if you simultaneously send ‘hostile’ or ‘untrustworthy’ social signals, people will have a negative reaction to you. This reaction may be unconscious, but it is very real and will affect how people respond to you. When your words seem to disagree with your other systems of social signalling, most people will find it hard to believe what you say.

If you ignore the social signals that others are sending you, you will seem uncaring, unfriendly, and eventually even hostile, even if you are paying close attention to their words.

Most people feel bound by social conventions; they desire to be “polite” and expect others to do the same. This means that they’d rather not directly express or hear unpleasant ideas such as “I’m bored,” “I feel uncomfortable talking about this,” “you’re acting weird and making me nervous,” “I’d like to end the conversation,” etc. To spare your feelings, people will use nonverbal methods of communicating these messages. The signals may be very subtle at first, but if ignored, people will increase the intensity of the signals and/or add other, redundant signals until they receive some sign that the message has been received. If you express your negative thoughts bluntly and directly in words, you appear not to care about the people you’re speaking to.

Even though it’s perfectly polite to express positive attitude and emotion, we routinely express these non-verbally, too (because we need to be reassured quite often that people have friendly, non-threatening intentions towards us, but it would be a huge time-waster and kind of weird if they kept saying so). If someone keeps sending you friendly signals without receiving any from you, they begin to feel that you do not share these feelings, even if you have said that you do. (Remember, for most people, when nonverbal and verbal clash, the nonverbal wins.)

A Specific, Everyday Example: Ending a Conversation


It is always difficult (for everyone!) to end a conversation. By definition, you are communicating that you no longer wish to talk to that person, that you have better things to do. This could hurt the person’s feelings, even if you’re close friends. It’s a threatening act, one that most people would rather accomplish indirectly. If you just blurt out, “I’m bored. I’m leaving,” you appear to not care about the person’s feelings, to not care about the relationship, and you have, in fact, just damaged the relationship.

How it can go (badly!) wrong

Typically, people do a bit of back-and-forth signalling, to establish that they are still friendly but that both are ready to end the interaction, before any of this is made explicit. So, to start with, let’s say I trail off at the end of the sentence, leaving it hanging with a “so…..” or an “anyway….” (You can actually hear the ellipses, as I stretch out the final vowel!) This is a subtle signal, and probably the friendliest way to start the negotiation: it conveys merely that I have run out of things to say on this topic. I’m still sending friendly signals (normal eye contact, smile, relaxed posture, friendly tone of voice) to reassure you that we could introduce a new topic, if you’d like, and that I still like you, even if we end the conversation now. If you then also trail off (signalling that you, too, have run out of things to say, and have no new topic to introduce), we can then amicably wrap up the conversation without hard feelings on either side.

If, however, you miss that initial signal, and keep right on talking, and I really do want to end the conversation, I will increase the intensity of my signalling, now remaining silent as you talk, not giving as many active listening cues as you speak. (I will still do some active listening, because I don’t want to be rude, but I will decrease the amount. For more about active listening, see showing interest.) When I do speak, the tone of my voice will sound slightly bored. My smile will become strained (smaller and tight), with slight tightening around the eyes. This should signal to you that something is wrong. For very brief moments, I will have micro-expressions where I frown slightly, my jaw clenches, my eyes narrow further – but then I’ll ‘correct’ these back into a more polite smile. If you ignore these signals, I will feel that you don’t care that something is wrong with me. (It won’t occur to most people that you have failed to interpret the cues. Most people can’t help but interpret them.)

If you keep right on talking now, in addition to all the other signals, I will start showing you with my body and my gaze that I am uncomfortable: I may cross my arms, or start scratching somewhere, playing with my hair (but in a distracted, not flirting way), tapping my foot, shifting my weight, etc. I may take a small (but symbolic) step back, or lean away if we’re sitting. I may, in fact, be doing ALL of these things, shouting at you with my body that I feel trapped. Instead of normal, friendly gaze, I am now either staring you down (because I’m angry), or looking anywhere except at you (to show you how much I long to escape). I have begun saying things like “Boy, have I got a lot to do today,” “Have you got the time?” or other indirect statements that explain why I want to end the conversation (even though I still haven’t actually said that I do, because again, I don’t want to hurt your feelings). The tone of my voice is now very bored, or perhaps slightly annoyed. I may sigh, or take a deep breath as I try to control my mounting anger. I have probably looked at my time piece (my watch, my cellphone – even my bare wrist where a watch could be!) more than once. I may have referred to the current conversation in the past tense (“It’s been great talking to you,” “This was fun,” “I’m glad I ran into you,” etc.), showing that from my point of view, the conversation should be over, done, in the past. Incidentally, if I do say such a thing, I’m probably lying through my teeth, because at this point I’m desperate to get away – but even so, I’m trying not to hurt your feelings. I may even say “We should do this again sometime,” but you’ll notice that I don’t specify when!

It seems impossible to many people that you could miss all of these “really obvious” signals. From my point of view, I’ve gone way out of my way to avoid hurting your feelings, but you’re not paying any attention at all to mine. This makes me angry at you, and makes me feel that you don’t care about me at all. I feel trapped like an animal in a cage, and I’ve exhausted all the polite methods I know to get away. Now I’m going to have to be rude, and that makes me feel like a bad person, so I’m angry at you for that as well. (Here’s where the so-called “normal” person erupts in anger “out of nowhere.”)

What could you have done to make the conversation more successful?

  1. You need to monitor the person you’re speaking to for signals that they’re ready to end the conversation. (You don’t need to keep track of all of the signs; picking up on a single cue will do!) Some conversations may be very short, in which case the signals will appear almost immediately.
  2. When someone sends such a signal, you should reciprocate it. If I trail off, you trail off. If I sound a bit bored, so do you. (Etc.) This allows the conversation to end easily, with no hard feelings, increasing the likelihood that we’ll have good conversations in the future.
  3. If you recognize a signal, but you need to add something else to the conversation, show that you’ve understood and will be willing to end the conversation shortly, by saying something like “one more thing,” or “I know you have to get going, but I just need to tell you….” or “before you go, I wanted to say….” This shows that you are not trying to trap the other person; it shows respect for their needs, even as you extend the conversation. If you show such concern and respect, people will be more willing to extend the interaction.
  4. In addition to waiting to recognize signals from the person you’re talking to, you can proactively and periodically give them permission to end the conversation, e.g., trailing off with a friendly tone and a smile, or even by explicitly saying something like “you’ve probably got to go, but I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.” If you signal that it’s okay to end the conversation (without actually ending it yourself), people will feel more comfortable talking to you, and are (paradoxically) more likely to extend the conversation.

How could anyone possibly pay attention to all these signals at the same time and still keep track of the verbal conversation?

5 pieces of good news:

1) Picking up on a single signal will often be enough! Most people use multiple systems of communication, but they use them redundantly, to reinforce a single message. (As in the above example, where all I wanted to show was increasing discomfort due to a desire to end the conversation.)  You can focus on a single category of cues, getting better at interpreting them, and then decide if you want to learn about other sorts of cues or whether you’re getting enough social information through your chosen method. The ability to better recognize and interpret messages that other people are sending you will improve every interaction you have. Many of the systems are visual, so if you avoid eye contact, you may be missing important cues, which is why you’ve probably been told over and over again that you need to make more eye contact – but most people do just fine interpreting social signals over the telephone, and people with visual impairments do not necessarily suffer from social communication challenges. If you know that you will miss facial expression and gaze cues, you can concentrate on interpreting other signals such as posture and tone of voice. Contrariwise, if you struggle to interpret different tones of voice, you can focus on visual cues.

2) If you have the language and intelligence to understand what is written here and you are willing to put some time and effort into practicing some of the skills, you can learn how to NOT send unintentional signals that cause negative reactions. Most people learn as infants, by observation, to interpret and project appropriate social signals, and continue to practice these skills day-in-day-out their whole lives. This system of communication is not explicitly taught, not consciously analyzed, and so your friends and families (and even your therapists) have not been able to explain it to you, or only in the vaguest of ways. If you are starting to learn about all this as an adult, you will probably never achieve the same level of unconscious, easy mastery of the system, but you can learn to avoid some of the biggest problems and receive some messages you have previously missed in conversations.

3) This website attempts to integrate insights from many fields of study into a useful, accessible, freely available site. There is no single academic field that covers these topics, and scientific literature from those that cover particular aspects (sociolinguistics, behavioral psychology, pragmatics, interpersonal communications, communication disorders, proxemics, kinesiology, haptics, etc.) is generally dense and inaccessible to anyone who has not done graduate-level studies in each specific field.Other sources are available that are addressed to professionals who work with people (mostly children) with social communication challenges, but are not addressed directly to you.  Although there is a lot of information here, and you may feel overwhelmed, you can always look at a little bit at a time, revisit units as many times as you like, work with others or on your own, and skip what is not relevant or useful for you.

4)  There are some tips that are fairly easy to implement and that will show immediate results. There is no silver bullet, no magic potion, no easy quick fix that will suddenly make you a brilliant and sought-after conversationalist. Each of the topics is quite complex, and most of them relate to each other in multiple ways –- there is no simple, linear path to follow through the information presented here. But there are some tips and tricks you could begin to use quickly and easily. We hope that these easy tips will motivate you to continue, but that you will not be so satisfied with these that you will stop there.  The generalization that governs all the specific tips is this:  if you consistently show you care (in a friendly, non-threatening way) about the person you’re speaking to, every conversation goes better.

5) There is no “normal,” and you don’t need to sound like everyone else. How you speak is a reflection of who you are and how you see the situation you’re in. (The field of sociolinguistics developed specifically to investigate questions such as how people speak differently based on geographical region, ethnicity, sex, class, age, situation, etc. If all people sounded the same all the time, we wouldn’t be able to use language to send social signals.) If you are loud, blunt, and honest (or quiet, reserved and serious, or whatever), that’s part of your personality, and the people who know and love you probably wouldn’t want you to change much, they just want you to hurt their feelings less, and to have a greater chance of success in the world. Our focus here has been on receptive skills. Once you learn to recognize and interpret the social messages others are sending, you should begin to notice the signals that you yourself are (often inadvertently) sending, and you can decide for yourself whether these can or should be changed, diminished or increased, apologized for or celebrated.

Why do I have to learn all these stupid rules? Why can't other people adjust to the way I speak?

To some extent, the people who already know you and love you will adjust to the way you speak. (If you don’t do a lot of linguistic politeness and always express yourself bluntly and directly, your loved ones won’t assume you’re angry at them or that you no longer care for them, etc.) But it will be awfully difficult for others to get to know and love you. When the literal meaning of your words seems to disagree with the social messages people think they’re receiving from you, people don’t understand what you mean and they don’t know how to respond. This is confusing and frustrating and they won’t enjoy interacting with you. You are part of a minority, and like most minorities, you are expected to adjust to the tyranny of the majority. That may not seem fair, but you’re certainly not alone in this. African-Americans and other ethnic minorities are stigmatized when they use dialects which may be culturally meaningful to them; the LGBTQ community is stigmatized when it transgresses mainstream gender stereotypes; etc. It’s one thing to consciously reject the tyranny of the majority, to decide to go against the “rules,” knowing full well you’ll be penalized for it socially, but it’s a very different thing to be unaware that the rules even exist, to be penalized when you don’t even know why. This website is designed to demystify the rules. What you do with that knowledge is up to you.

Comments are closed.