April 08, 2019

Why Small Social Cues are a Big Deal

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Hands up. Staying on topic. Remaining silent while others speak. Waiting until others are done speaking to raise your hand.

These are social rules many of us take for granted in the classroom. It helps keep the learning environment orderly and efficient, and provides opportunities for many people to participate in the learning experience.

What happens when a participant has difficulty following some of these social rules?

Every so often, a student enrolls in one of my courses and demonstrates difficulty with some basic classroom interactions. It can often be a non-issue or something easily worked around: for example, a person who regularly shouts out their ideas without raising their hand can be asked to defer to a hand-raiser.

But sometimes a student’s social interactions in the classroom are difficult for both an instructor and fellow students to ignore, especially when it is clear that someone has trouble with social cues. It’s not that unusual for a student to go on a short tangent while speaking in class, but I have occasionally had students become fixated on ideas that are irrelevant to the topic at hand. When this happens, I might let them finish their thought and move on to get back on track. On a few occasions, the student will raise their hand again to try and restart the topic, typically yielding uncomfortable laughter and eye rolls from their peers.

This can be very frustrating as the professor, and in the past such interactions have irritated me. But I have started to wonder if the students in question truly have difficulty with the “move on” or “stay focused” social cues. It’s not my job to diagnose why this might be the case, but from a sociological perspective it is very interesting to observe what happens when these moments occur.

I recently blogged about the sociological concept of the definition of the situation; that shared meanings of situations are created through social interactions. For instance, if two people meet for the first time under the shared understanding that they one is interviewing the other for a job, the conversation is likely to be very different than if they are on a first date.

Imagine if one of the pair was confused about the situation: asking about previous romantic relationships might be okay on a date, but almost certainly not on a job interview. The definition of the situation sets the guidelines for the interaction and shapes how we attempt to manage the impression we give off to the other person.

In a job interview the candidate is likely going to be the one trying to impress the interviewer rather than the other way around. The interviewer is probably going to be driving the conversation, will ask more questions and determine when the meeting is over. Certainly the interviewee might ask some questions—perhaps about the position and the organization—but probably not questions about the interviewer’s qualifications or salary.

In all likelihood, no one on a job interview is explicitly told that the interviewer will be leading the conversation, but it is typically understood. What if the interviewee asked most of the questions and attempted to steer the conversation and control the interaction? The interviewer might be put off by this behavior, could even feel disrespected, and because of this might not offer the person the job.

Imagine if someone did not understand these typical interview dynamics or were unable to pick up on the social cues that the interviewer needed to ask most of the questions and was getting annoyed. They might have trouble getting or keeping a job, and it could impact other aspects of their lives as well. Sustaining friendships can be challenging when social cues are difficult to interpret.

I sometimes observe this dynamic in the classroom behavior of these select students. They might say things that are so inappropriate that others in the class react negatively in the moment and then to that person more generally. They might take up a lot of class time asking questions that others don’t have, or repeatedly seek to participate when others are hopeful to do so as well. This can also zap the energy of those interacting with someone with difficulty picking up social cues.

Small social cues are often things that we take for granted. How else do social cues matter in our daily interactions?


Thank you for the post. I'm familiar with people who need to be taught social cues because they didn't learn them while growing up, but I hadn't seen it from a professor's point of view. I can see that you need to hone the skill for essentially cutting someone off without humiliating them.

In terms of social cues, it's fascinating to me how complex our communication is. I once observed a class of teenagers who had been diagnosed with spectrum disorders. The class was on social skills, and the topic for the day was greetings. The instructor explained that what we say to someone else in terms of a greeting relates to on several factors. The one factor covered that hour was how long it had been since they had seen the person. If it had been an hour, a simple "hello" or a nod would suffice; they do not need to stop and talk. But if had been a year, the social expectation is quite different. The instructor broke down that greeting into multiple steps, such as 1) A word of greeting. 2) A mention as to approximately how long it had been since they'd last seen him [not specific]. 3) A question about how he is doing. 4) A complimentary phrase such as "It's good to see you." [There was some pushback on that in the class.] 5) A goodbye with good wishes included.

It brought home how social cues are what keep us bonded as a society. Those are don't follow the cues are easily alienated.

It is an amazing article on social cues. Sometimes we tend to ignore the small social cues which end up costing us a lot. Observing social cues helps strengthen our communication.

Hi, I am taking introductory sociology. I find your article extremely interesting. Until reading your article I have not noticed the many people who neglect very command social cues. Not knowing that there were even simple rules to follow. Breaking it all down like you did allowed me to really understand what I have been noticing in many others around me. While obtaining how others use social clues correctly allows me to learn how to properly recite them. Reading your acticle has truely been a big help. Thank you.

How do these upwardly mobile individuals behave in the presence of both groups? E.g. a student discussing their paper with a professor in the presence of friends.

Thanks for sharing this awesome content here.

The blog is very informative and outstanding. I would love to read your blog. Give me lots of useful information. I will often visit your blog.

It's safe to assume that a job interview will be conducted in a totally different manner than a first date would.

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