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What is social communication, and why is it so important?

We use it every time we go to a party, talk to a colleague, make a phone call, or go through the checkout line at the grocery store. Social communication is otherwise defined as the set of verbal and nonverbal skills we employ to navigate all social interactions. For many people, social communication can be so intuitive they’re not even aware of what a complex skill it really is. For others, it can feel like a game they never signed up to play in which the rules keep changing every five minutes.

Social communication plays a role in almost every facet of our lives. It’s fundamental to being able to form any kind of relationship, from friendships and acquaintances to professional relationships with bosses, colleagues, or professors. It’s also important academically, as students are often required to work in groups and communicate effectively with their peers.

Additionally, good social communication skills pave the way to the development of advanced language skills necessary for abstract thinking, deductive reasoning, and understanding the association between concepts.

Implicit Versus Explicit Communication Rules

Social communication skills encompass a vast array of practices and norms that we are following all the time, from taking turns in conversation and using appropriate tone of voice and volume to being polite, understanding humor, and using flexible thinking to understand perspectives or reactions that may be different to the way we would think or react.

There are some social communication skills that we are explicitly taught from a young age, such as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ raising our hands in the classroom to talk, and sharing food and toys with others.

However, for every explicit rule, there are probably a few dozen implicit rules. We are never taught them, but instead, we are expected to learn by observing others.

For example, most of us are never told how far away we should stand from another person. And yet, through observation and a bit of trial and error at a young age, we are able to find the sweet spot fairly effortlessly.

But even just maintaining appropriate personal space is a lot more complex than it seems. In American culture, there are actually four different zones of personal space. Anything from 0 to 1.5 feet away is considered the ‘intimate zone,’ where only family, pets, or sexual partners are permitted. 1.5 to 4 feet is considered ‘personal space,’ an area reserved for friends and acquaintances, but generally forbidden to strangers. 4 to 12 feet is ‘social space,’ where routine interactions with strangers or acquaintances are conducted, and beyond this is ‘public space.’

It seems almost alien to define the space around us in this way because, for most of us, these rules are so intuitive we don’t even realize we’re following them until they’re broken. Somebody invades our personal space, and we’re left feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.

There are, of course, lots of exceptions to these personal space guidelines. Think crowds or subways. This can make these unwritten rules a lot harder to pick up on for a person that struggles with social communication.

The Art of Conversation

In conversation, things can get even more difficult. We need to be able to interpret other people’s cues and give cues of our own. For example, we can demonstrate interest by asking questions, nodding along, or showing enthusiasm with our tone of voice. Similarly, if the person we’re talking to keeps giving short replies and checking their phone or watch, we need to be able to recognize these as cues that it might be time to change the subject or wrap up the conversation. We ensure that we don’t end up dominating a conversation by tailoring the length of our talking turn to match the other person. We consider context and how much background information the other person has when deciding which details to provide. And on and on.

To give an example of the complex subconscious decision-making that goes into answering even the simplest of questions, let’s look at two different ways a person might respond when asked, “What did you have for dinner on your date?”

Response 1: “We went out for burgers and fries. The burgers were fantastic but a bit messy. I ended up getting ketchup on my shirt!”

Response 2: “I had a well-done burger with ketchup, mustard, cheese, pickles, medium fries, and a glass of coke.”

Technically, both responses answered the question. But response one was much more appropriate than response two. Why? Because implicitly, the question, “What did you have for dinner on your date,” is looking for a particular type of answer. The person asking the question didn’t want to know every condiment you put on your burger. They were looking for the short and sweet version and perhaps a few anecdotal details to make it more interesting (like getting ketchup on your shirt).

Or were they? Consider another acceptable response:

Response 3: “We went to a burger place where they make this incredible barbeque sauce that’s super spicy and tangy. I tried it with pickles to mellow out the spice a bit, and it was fantastic.”

Responses two and three both get into the nitty gritty about the contents of your burger. So, what’s the difference? Response three focuses on something that made the burger novel or different from a typical burger. Response two, however, went into too much depth to describe a burger most of us would already be familiar with. So when answering a question, it’s important to consider the context. Does the other speaker have experience with burgers? If so, we’d only want to describe our burger in detail if there was something unique about it.

Of course, there were also differences in the tone and delivery of the two responses. Response two was list-like and didn’t show any emotion. Responses one and three both demonstrated some sort of reaction to the food or the experience.

See how complex this is getting? We make dozens of implicit decisions about tone, background information, register or formality, length of turn, rate of speech, and more every time we communicate. And because there are an infinite number of possible social scenarios we may find ourselves in, there is no rule book we can use to cover it all.

Unfortunately, for people to whom these skills don’t come naturally, social interactions can feel like an uphill battle. It can be difficult to form and maintain friendships, get through the interview stage when applying for jobs, or find a romantic partner. This can result in social isolation and poorer overall life outcomes, including reduced academic and professional attainment.

Is culture shock really just a form of temporary social communication disorder?

If you’re somebody that breezes through social situations without a doubt, traveling to a foreign country might help you to understand a bit about what communicating can feel like for people to whom the rules don’t come naturally.

Culture shock is the experience of moving from a familiar culture that is easy to navigate to one that is unfamiliar and unintuitive. And much of what makes one culture different from another is the rules of social communication.

Take greetings. In some countries, a kiss on the cheek is customary. In others, you say hello with a handshake, a bow, or a hug. But while adapting one’s salutation is relatively simple, other differences in social communication are much more complex.

You may be considered the funny guy back home but suddenly find that all your jokes fall flat. You may show up to a party at the time you were told, only to discover that the social norm is to come one to two hours after the time stated. At the next event, you may show up an hour after the agreed-upon time, only to discover that that rule only applies to parties and not to dinners.

The experience of culture shock is one of trying to identify and understand the norms that dictate life in a different culture. You try to act appropriately but may not know exactly what appropriate behavior looks like. This can lead to feelings of alienation and social incompetency that mirror the experience of social communication disorder.

How is Social Communication Disorder diagnosed?

There are many reasons that a person might struggle with social communication. Social Communication Disorder, also known as Pragmatic Language Disorder, can be a diagnosis on its own, but it also often occurs as a component of other conditions, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Intellectual Disability, Developmental Language Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and various other psychological and emotional disorders.

Speech-language pathologists evaluate three major areas when assessing someone for Social Communication Disorder.

  1. Their ability to use and understand language:
    People with social communication disorder often struggle with higher-level language, such as sarcasm, idioms (e.g., It’s raining cats and dogs), or non-literal language (e.g., “If you show up late, I’ll kill you”). Children and adults with language disorders (e.g., Developmental Language Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury) often struggle to express themselves clearly or understand what others are saying, which has subsequent impacts on their social skills.
  2. Their ability to change their language based on the situation:
    For example, we speak differently to a young child versus an adult and more formally to a boss or colleague than to a friend or family member. We also need to change our language depending on context and environment. For example, we speak quietly in a library versus on a playground and give more information to a person that doesn’t know much about the topic versus one who does (e.g., explaining that Sai is your cousin when talking to your coworker but not when talking to your mom).
  3. Their ability to follow social communication rules:
    We’ve already talked about a few explicit and implicit rules used during everyday communication. Speech-language pathologists may look at things like a person’s ability to use greetings, take turns in conversation, stay on topic, use appropriate body language, and shift topics at an appropriate time, amongst other skills.

Can Social Communication Disorder be treated?

When social communication difficulties are secondary to another diagnosis, targeting the root issue may have positive roll-on effects on social skills. For example, children with Developmental Language Disorder often struggle to participate in conversations because their ability to express themselves using words and sentences is not as advanced as their peers. Interventions that target understanding and use of language can thus help a child keep up during conversation or play and result in them overcoming their social communication difficulties.

Treatment that focuses directly on social communication can be a bit trickier. As stated previously, we are following a lot of rules all the time, and the rules often shift from one situation to the next. For people to whom this doesn’t come naturally, it can be exhausting to try to keep up. Forcing oneself to interact in ways that don’t feel natural can also be painful for people with neurodiverse conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Traditional treatment methodologies have focused on teaching neurodiverse people to use and follow the social skills used by neurotypical people in order to gain social acceptance. The problem with this is that it creates a hierarchy in which one way of communicating is arbitrarily valued over the other.

For example, many people with Autism Spectrum Disorder find eye contact to be uncomfortable or may naturally use a very direct communication style (e.g., answering a question, such as ‘do you like my new shirt,’ honestly and directly, even if that means saying something negative). However, because the dominant culture places value on eye contact and often perceives direct communication as rude, traditional therapy methods have sought to stamp out these behaviors. This can be an alienating experience for neurodiverse people, who feel that they have to hide their differences or change behaviors that feel natural to them in order to be accepted.

In fact, research now suggests that neurodiverse people who modify their behavior in an effort to appear neurotypical suffer from higher rates of anxiety, stress, and depression as compared to those who are more accepting of their differences.

New Directions in Treatment

Neurodiversity-affirming approaches to treatment for Social Communication Disorder advocate doing away with a values-based system. This might look as simple as providing people options about whether and which social skills to work on in therapy and making clear that these skills are not the ‘right’ way of interacting but rather can be used as helpful tools for navigating social environments that may feel confusing or unintuitive. Strategies such as identifying and using indirect language (e.g., ‘I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean,’ rather than ‘that didn’t make any sense’) then become a resource that can be used to facilitate communication when desired.

Once the skills to be targeted are decided upon, the general premise of speech therapy for Social Communication Disorder is to make explicit many of the unspoken rules of social communication.

This may include more basic social skills, such as the use of greetings and the ability to recognize and respond to facial expressions, to more complex social skills, such as taking equal turns during a conversation (often practiced with a timer), demonstrating interest by asking questions, staying on topic, and using a varied tone of voice (rather than flat, which can indicate boredom or disinterest), or practicing using softeners or indirect language to increase politeness.

One of the strongest tools for developing these social skills is to watch videos of people communicating and try to pinpoint moments where things go wrong or right as well as the skills being employed by each interlocutor. Once the skills are identified and understood, it’s all about practice, practice, practice.

Where to go from here

Social communication is a vast and complex set of skills that we use to interact with one another every day. If you’re a person to whom social skills come naturally, be gracious and inclusive of those around you. You never know who might be struggling to find their turn in the conversation or understand the joke.

If you are somebody who finds social communication difficult and fraught, know that social skills are just that: skills that can be taught and learned. Talk to a speech-language pathologist, and remember that there is no one ‘right’ way to communicate. Instead, social communication is about learning to connect with others in whatever way works best for you.

Janet Barrow holds a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College and a Master of Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Sydney. She works as a pediatric speech pathologist and freelance writer and is currently finishing her first novel.

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