When someone rolls their eyes, gives a wide smile, or angrily crosses their arms, they're sending a note, or in addition formally known as a social cue. “Social cues are verbal and nonverbal cues that allow us as humans to understand how someone is feeling and just what they are thinking at this specific point in time – these cues involve such things as body language, gesturing, facial expressions, proximity, tone, etc.,” says Karen Donaldson, celebrity communication + body gestures expert and certified confidence coach.

Many times, we are able to pick up on these cues, but in other instances, they may not necessarily be so clear. You'll want to note and become sensitive to the truth that interpreting social cues doesn't come easily to all – for example, people who have ADHD, are on the autism spectrum, or are dealing with certain mental health conditions, might have challenge with certain aspects of perceiving social cues and have other ways of expressing themselves.

We synced track of a few experts to learn more about social cues, so keep scrolling to read through some common (and perhaps not too common) examples of cues and just what to consider when interpreting them.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions would be the only universal social cue, says Jan Hargrave, body gestures expert and author of five books. “There are seven universal expressions which include anger, fear, contempt, happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust,” she adds. In the end, a grin is really a smile where you go – even though it may not continually be genuine. If a smile is indeed sincere, Hargrave points out that it'll involve the entire face (aka a corner of the eyes will “crinkle”). A fake smile, which she dubs a “grapefruit smile,” calls for just the lower part of the face and lips pulling far back. Here's another interesting tidbit – one study attempted to take a look at trustworthy vs. untrustworthy facial expressions and determined that the slight raise from the eyebrows and a slight smile was deemed probably the most trustworthy.

Personal Space

Have you felt uncomfortable when someone is inching a tad too close? Enter personal space. Here's one easy method to think about it: “In life, we always go towards things we like and from the things we do not – it's the same when it comes to body gestures,” notes Hargrave. The term proxemics was coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall and refers back to the distance maintained between people as they interact. He identified four zones of interpersonal distance to characterize Western culture: intimate distance, which involves direct contact with another person; personal distance, which ranges from one to four feet; social distance, where more formal business and social interactions have a tendency to happen; and public distance, where no physical contact takes place (think airports, sidewalks and enormous shopping malls). Just like facial expressions can communicate a substantial amount of nonverbal information, so can the amount of physical space between individuals.

Hand Gestures

As Donaldson tells Sunday Edit, hand gestures can be very informative. “When people use their hands as well as their palms are facing upwards – it signals honesty and transparency (I've absolutely nothing to hide),” she says, adding that conversely when someone hides their hands as they speak, this could “signal dishonesty or showcase that the individual is uncomfortable.” Hargrave elaborates on the importance of hands and hand gestures within our social interactions, highlighting that individuals have a tendency to generally trust you faster once they see some type of hand motion taking place while you are talking. “Hands play a huge role in our lives whenever you consider it – hands delivered you, hand-holding is commonplace in a ritual like marriage along with a family member might hold your hand if you're sick.” That being said, she points out that hands can also harm you, and that's why you may feel a little leery if someone is speaking with their hands behind their back.

Head Nodding

Head nodding is used like a cue to signal understanding and interest. “Head nod is really a manifestation of acknowledgment – two head nods typically mean the person is agreeing with you and listening, but three quick nods or even more often means the person is asking you to accelerate what you're saying so that they can get in their two cents,” notes Hargrave. She adds that because so many people continue to be working remotely, it's good for incorporate a positive cue – like a head nod – while on Zoom meetings to show acknowledgment.

Eye Contact

Eye contact is another major one in the arena of social cues. “If someone looks away or distracted while talking with you, it means their attention isn't solely on you and they're probably ready to proceed to something or someone else,” says Donaldson, who also offers an app called Speak Confident. Not a great feeling, so whenever you're chatting with someone else, make sure to look them directly within the eyes to demonstrate that you are paying attention and interested in what they've to state.


Have you ever sat across from someone on your early morning commute who suddenly yawns and then end up doing exactly the same shortly thereafter? Well, this is exactly what we call mirroring. Mirroring is really a social cue that can be done both consciously and unconsciously – most of the time it's unconscious as with the illustration of mirroring a yawn, however, it is also a learned technique to help in certain instances (i.e., your job). “People tend to be attracted to others who have similarities for them and the same goes with body language,” says Hargrave. She elaborates that mirroring may be used in a business setting, just like a sales meeting, to construct rapport. The important thing, though, would be to not make it obvious. “Say your company prospect rubs the foot of their chin with their left-hand. Rather than you doing that very same gesture directly after, you may briefly tap your pen on a notepad after which go to rub the foot of your chin,” Hargrave advises. You'll also want to steer clear of mirroring negative body gestures like the crossing of the arms or turning away.

Pupil Dilation

One cue you may not have really given any thought to before is pupil dilation. “When someone is drawn to you their eyes will give them – that’s because our pupils dilate whenever we see something that's visually stimulating or something that people like,” Donaldson explains.


Someone's posture can reveal a great deal, too. “It can be simple to get super comfortable and begin to slouch when sitting or standing, however, don't do it,” advises Donaldson. People who sit upright are thought to be attentive and somebody that wants to be part of the conversation. She continues: “When you lean back an excessive amount of, you boost the distance between your body else, also it can provide the impression that you're disinterested and/or inattentive.” Hargrave adds that the individual with a constricted posture may be feeling nervous or anxious.

Feet Placement

Feet positioning is really a nonverbal cue to help you know whether the body else is engaged or ready to take off. It's a good sign if you are conversing with another person as well as their feet are flat on the floor and pointed directly toward you (with legs uncrossed), as Hargrave highlights this can signal the individual is engaged and open as the discussion is going on. If their toes are pointed away from you, Donaldson adds it may mean they are ready to leave the convo. Tapping feet is yet another giveaway for nervous, bored or anxious feelings.

How to rehearse Reading Social Cues

If you feel as though you're struggling with reading social cues, Hargrave suggests observing interactions you aren't involved with, like watching a soap opera on mute and trying to find out whether the actors are sending positive or negative cues. Soap operas don't have any shortage of drama and emotion, so that they serve as good practice with regards to deciphering cues like body gestures, facial expressions and hand gestures. Lastly, don't be likely to get it right all of the time. Social interactions could be layered and tricky, so give yourself a break if you misinterpret a cue or have found it hard sometimes.

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