Help me understand human behaviour
March 17, 2008 5:49 AM   Subscribe

How can I better understand social cues?

I am looking primarily for books and other resources to better understand social cues, but I also welcome direct responses.

I find it difficult to interact with others socially. I think that part of my problem is that I have difficulty understanding other's social cues and sending appropriate signals myself. I've noticed this deficit mainly with contextual cues, but I'm sure I say inappropriate things as well.

For example, I don't make eye contact when I should and when I do make eye contact, I don't know how long to hold it for. I find it difficult to determine the appropriate moment to start speaking, especially in a conversation with more than one other person and I don't seem to signal others properly that I am about to speak. I'm unsure what sort of expression I should have on my face when listening to someone and so I tend to default to a blank expression. Although I probably don't notice most of the time, I can sometimes see that I am somehow making others uncomfortable.

I've found a lot of self-help books that deal with what to say when conversing with a relative stranger, how to make small talk, and so on, but haven't found much that deals with the contextual cues in detail. If I had something like a field guide to these cues, I think I'd be able to identify them in others and eventually use them myself, but at the moment, I don't even know what to look for.
posted by ssg to Human Relations (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This probably isn't the answer you want to hear, but this kind of knowledge usually comes from experience (sometimes bad experiences). Not to say that you absolutely couldn't learn this from a book, but I imagine it would be hard. Trust me, I've been where you are.

That said, this book does offer lots of good general advice for developing a social life, and it's been oft-recommended on AskMeFi.
posted by mpls2 at 6:02 AM on March 17, 2008

Oh, and I also think you're overthinking this (understandably). Focus on being a friendly, positive person. People will forgive you for not maintaining eye contact for the proper amount of time.
posted by mpls2 at 6:04 AM on March 17, 2008

Turn your brain off (stop thinking, listen to the other person) and try out some stuff. If it goes well, don't start thinking about how incredibly awesomely you're doing, just continue and do the same for screwing up.
posted by Submiqent at 6:15 AM on March 17, 2008

On another hand, not all social cues are just "picked up" by everyone. I think you should look at some books that deal with learning and teaching social skills to people with autism and asperger's syndrome. Even if you don't have either of those, the information is going to helpful.

Book List

Book List 2
posted by aetg at 6:30 AM on March 17, 2008

You may actually be hyper attuned to social cues. I think that I am, and it's hard for me, because I think I'm really attuned to people's body language, and I can tell when they are dismissing something I'm saying, and then I clam up...whereas I think someone who isn't so attuned could just keep talking and not be so self-conscious.

Just a thought, maybe it's not that way for you.

But I think the advice to not think about this too much is probably good. There are many different kinds of communicators, and you basically have to find your own style. I've worked hard to be comfortable with a lot of eye contact (it used to freak me out).

One thing I did for a long time was work hard on catching people's eyes when I walked down the street. It may or may not be creepy but in the past I would never do that. It took me a couple of years (I don't even really remember doing this work). But now I can grab people's eyes all the time.

But if I'm talking to someone for a long time, telling them a story, I don't always grab their eyes. It all depends on the situation. I think mostly the thing is to find people and talk to them.

And my blanket answer for everything: try a dance class. You'll be in a somewhat intimate experience with a stranger, and that's a good place to learn all this stuff.
posted by sully75 at 6:33 AM on March 17, 2008

Oh, and the "people who bought this also bought..." links off those Amazon pages should also lead you to additional helpful books.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:14 AM on March 17, 2008

I think that in general, only babies and lovers want to make direct, lingering eye contact for more than 3 seconds at a time. With strangers it's uncomfortable, and even with friends it's a bit weird to stare into one another's eyes in a conversation. Bad actors do this all the time- lock eyes with each other when they talk- and it makes the scenes so awkward!

I'm an acting teacher, and one of the "rules of acting" I teach is the 90-10 rule:

When you're listening, make eye contact with the speaker 90% of the time, and look elsewhere 10% of the time.
When you're talking, look elsewhere 90% of the time and look at the listener 10% of the time.

It's not a hard and fast rule, though. The 90-10 percentages will vary according to the ages and genders and relative status of the people in the conversation. For instance, women are expected to make more eye contact than men. In a dominant position, if you stare too much at the submissive figure, you'll make them feel uncomfortable or threatened, and if you're speaking to someone of the opposite gender too much eye contact may sexually charge a situation, etc etc... maybe the same rule would apply but more of a 70-30 split may be more socially appropriate. The key take-home message is, "keep fairly steady eye contact when you're listening, but it's ok to move your eyes when you're talking".

The rule's statement of "when you're the one talking, look elsewhere" might seem like a recipe to "ignore the person", but shouldn't be interpreted as such. More to the point, it means "when you're talking for a length of time, keep your eyes moving, don't stare". For instance, in a group setting, you'd keep your eyes moving by looking around the group at all listeners- this keeps you making a lot of eye contact, but your eyes don't stay on any one person too long. Our eyes naturally usually go up and to the side, or down, when we're talking anyway. It's totally OK to look off when speaking, to help collect your thoughts- and it gives the listener a little breather, as it lets them watch you without feeling watched. You only really need to look the listener in the eye at the beginning & end of your sentences, to see their response and connect with them. Speaking while staring directly into someone's eyes is often perceived as a little threatening, which socially will make you come off as creepy or overly intense.

Imagine ordering a sandwich. The waitress is in a service position, so in this interaction, she is submissive, and the customer is dominant. If the customer stares the waitress in the eyes while ordering, she'll be slightly creeped out- it'll feel like the customer is being unnecessarily forceful and bullying- and she'll pull away. It's more polite for the customer to look at her as she recites the specials (during which time she'll be looking up to the side as she remembers the list), then look at her as you say "I'll have..." Then you look at the menu and point to the thing you want as you order it, then you look back at her as you complete the order and thank her, checking her face to see if you made a good choice. Keeping your eyes moving is more polite for you, as the dominant figure. She, as the submissive figure and the listener, should be looking at you for most of that small interaction, so she'll better understand what you want. Make sense?

As for what facial expression to make when you're the listener, don't think about it- just listen to the person and find a way to be actually interested in what they say and how they feel. This will keep your face looking receptive- and your face will register small moment-to-moment expressions of "yeah, I agree", "no, I'm not sure," "I don't understand", "you're hilarious", etc- and it's those expressions that allow the speaker to guess your thoughts and connect to you. If you try to consciously create those expressions, your timing will be off, and it'll be obvious and uncomfortable, so just listen and your face will do it naturally.

I know a lot of socially awkward people who actually listen when I talk to them, and I totally overlook their awkwardness because I feel connected to them and I believe that what I say sincerely matters to them. Conversely, I've met some very charming, slick people who don't listen at all when I talk, and it drives me up the wall. Nobody cares how smooth you are if they don't feel like you're listening to them! So at the end of the day, social grace will follow naturally if you prioritize the content of the conversation over the style.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:25 AM on March 17, 2008 [9 favorites]

I was a total late bloomer with social cues. Usually, my solution to any problem is to hit the library and study it to oblivion. Well, that really doesn't work for figuring out religion or understanding the opposite sex, and it certainly doesn't work for learning body language and voice inflection cues. And really, most people wouldn't do well at learning a foreign language with just a set of language learning books. What you really need is a tutor.

You need a patient, empathic friend who can help translate ('She was bored. She didn't look at you very much.'), help you communicate better ('You look like you're waiting for someone to hit you when you stand like that.'), and help you critique yourself ('You might want to fidget less next time.'). This person is often, but not always, a girlfriend.

Watching videos of your interactions also helps. It gives you the time to pick out what you should be looking at (posture, gestures, eye-signals) and also gives you a chance to see how you look to other people. The turning point for me was doing acting critiques for a workshop. I'm not usually the kind of person who likes to be in front of a camera; I usually can't stand to watch myself on film. But I was forced to watch by the circumstances and it was jarring to see myself and how awkward I looked. From there it was easy to pick out a few things to pay attention to. I now stand straighter and flail less. It's progress.
posted by Alison at 9:26 AM on March 17, 2008

I'm not sure approaching this scientifically is the best way to go about it. This sounds like it's maybe more of an issue of not being able to "lose yourself" in a social setting. Thinking explicitly about social cues will nonetheless make you miss the message - body language operates on a different level of consciousness.

For example, you wouldn't have issues with eye contact if you didn't worry so much about where your eyes go. It's a matter of being comfortable with yourself. Which you learn by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations.

(I'm speaking from personal experience.)
posted by mammary16 at 9:26 AM on March 17, 2008

you wouldn't have issues with eye contact if you didn't worry so much about where your eyes go

I disagree, people sometimes form unfounded opinions of others based on where their eyes go. Not looking people in the eye is equated with evasiveness, dishonesty, disinterest, and boredom. Someone who does not adhere to the social standards of others with regards to eye contact is often judged in this way, and it makes no difference whether that individual feels that they want to improve on this or is blissfully ignorant that this might make a difference in their social interactions, it will still be an obstacle to social interactions. This applies to many aspects of interaction with others.

I recommend reading How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less, as well as any other books mentioned in this thread that appeal to you. Practice interacting with people in low stakes settings, conversations with people whose opinion of you won't affect your life. If you can bring yourself to talk with strangers, that can be a good option. Practice, practice, practice, and you will eventually get some of this social cues stuff down cold to where you won't have to consciously think about it.
posted by yohko at 4:08 PM on March 17, 2008

Response by poster: I appreciate all the answers and can assure pretty much everyone in the thread that a lot of practise is in the cards. Perhaps I should have phrased my question better: I'm not looking to become an expert by studying a few books, but I am hoping to identify the particular skills that I should work on. On that subject, I very much wish it were the case that I could relax, stop thinking, or what have you and be better in social situations, but I've been not worrying about it for almost all of my life so far* and it hasn't been working out very well for me. It seems that these skills don't come naturally to me, so I will have to work on them consciously (at least at first).

* I don't think I've wondered more than once or twice about eye contact until a few months ago.
posted by ssg at 9:42 PM on March 17, 2008

if you're the over-thinking type you cant really stop it. best to keep not worrying about it, being aware that its an issue, you can apply your thoughts to trial and error. The advantage you've got is you can "teach yourself new tricks" whereas everyone else is stuck in their unaware ways and undesirable traits.
posted by browolf at 10:28 AM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

One book that doesn't focus specifically on social cues, but does have a ton of good tips for being comfortable in a range of social situations, is: The Art of Civilized Conversation. Margaret Shepherd does an excellent job of breaking conversation and social interaction down into easy-to-understand bits; I'm generally a good conversationalist and I learn things every time I read this book. Really good.
posted by aarwenn at 8:04 AM on June 19, 2008

I see now that you asked specifically to avoid books that tell you how to make small talk, but I still stand by my suggestion. A lot of her book is about how to read the people around you to tailor your conversational style to them. And she talks a lot about the expected pattern and rhythm of conversational flow, which may go a long way towards helping you understand social cues in context, as you mentioned; if you can see conversation as a pattern that is often repeated, you may be able to anticipate what's coming next and prepare yourself for it. Good luck! Don't feel weird for asking these questions--I applaud your efforts.
posted by aarwenn at 8:09 AM on June 19, 2008

« Older I'm trying to get back on the horse but I wonder...   |   Who wrote this book? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.