A DailyStrength member wrote regarding their difficulty making and keeping friends. They have been told in the past that they are not very good at picking up social cues and that they misread others intentions or thoughts as being negative towards them when that belief has no real foundation. The member often has difficulty understanding the meaning of what others are saying. This type of problem can be very painful and isolating, and someone suffering from these difficulties may be dealing with a number of different issues.
The inability to properly assess another’s social cues could be the function of various underlying diagnoses ranging from Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism to Depression and even cultural differences. Clearly this is a question that does not have one right answer and without a proper evaluation there is no real way to know why this member is missing social cues.
Social cues are those things we intuit from others without needing to be directly told about them. Have you ever been engaged in a task you wanted to complete and someone approaches you and tries to engage you in conversation? If you acknowledge the person with a quick greeting but immediately return to your task, and that person continues to try and engage you in conversation, then they are most likely not reading your social cues.
Of course there is the option to directly say to that person, “I don’t have time to talk at the moment because I need to complete this task,” but we often rely on social cues to facilitate some of that communication work for us. When others fail to pick up on our cues we are often left frustrated and sometimes feel as though our boundaries have been invaded.
These cues are learned early in life and they do vary from culture to culture. Children learn to “read” their parents moods and they get pretty good at knowing when a good time to ask for something is – and when it is not. If a parent’s moods are constantly in flux or unreliable, a child may have a skewed vision of appropriate interactions and may then struggle outside the home to understand other’s needs.
Empathy, or the ability to recognize and even share feelings that are being felt by another, is a big component of healthy social interactions. Being able to gauge another’s needs in light of and sometimes in spite of your own needs can often determine your success or failure at relationships.
The inability to understand the meaning of what others are saying or being able to decipher the overall message of someone’s statement may signal the presence of a processing problem, depending upon the severity of the deficit. In simple terms, a processing problem exists when information goes into the brain and gets a bit derailed or jumbled as the person struggles to make sense of the information.
In any of the above examples I would strongly recommend seeking the help of a therapist. There are social skills groups which facilitate learning how to recognize social cues using behavioral tools and role playing. A therapist can also rule out a more serious disorder and create a treatment plan if one does in fact exist. The overall message is that, while it is easier to tackle this problem when you are young and just learning social nuances, these skills can be learned at any age.