Social Skills and Nonverbal Communication: More Than Just a Smile!

Mar 27, 2022

One of the interesting things about humans, and also in the animal world, is that we communicate not only through language that we can hear (for us as humans this means expressing our ideas and thoughts through words) but also through what we call “Nonverbal Communication”, language that we see. We often think of nonverbal communication as done primarily through our facial expressions, which rely heavily on how we position our mouth, “is the person we are with smiling or not?” This is what we typically watch for to know if our interaction with someone is going well or not. Parents know this, and this is why so many parents over the last 2 years during the Coronavirus pandemic, have expressed concerns and even worry about how their child will develop social skills in a world where everyone has been wearing masks.

It is true, that we rely heavily on being able to see a person’s mouth, whether it is turned upwards or down, whether it is pulled in a thin, straight, tense line or relaxed, or whether it is wide open, showing awe, wonder or surprise. We also notice the lower face. Whether it is tense and pulled tight or relaxed. All this sends us a message about how a person is feeling or what they might be thinking. But, as I was sitting in one of our Training in Core Social Skills groups one day not long ago and I brought up the subject of how we can tell how a person is feeling and what they are communicating without seeing their mouth or the bottom of their face when they wear a mask, I was surprised when a boy about 10 years old piped up and said, “I know how you are feeling without seeing your mouth! I can see you are smiling by looking at the corners of your eyes, and whether there are lines there, and whether your cheeks rise and your mask rises a bit too!” I remember thinking, “Wow, kids are so adaptive. We cover a person’s lower face, and they just adapt and watch for other “cues”.”

This made me feel so good, because for years in our Training in Core Social Skills Program, we have been teaching children and teens that people communicate not only through their words, but almost always through what we call Nonverbal Communication or “Nonverbal Cues”. And that these “cues” include not only how they hold their mouth and what they do with the muscles in their face, but a lot of other things as well! We have been drawing their attention to the myriad of nonverbal cues that we all use to send messages to each other. Here are a few of the other cues we can watch for to be able to “read” the messages others are trying to communicate to us, including what they are feeling, thinking or needing.

  • Eyebrows: are they pulled together? Are they slanting downwards towards the center of the face? Are they pulled upwards?
  • Eyes: are they wide, or squinty, or looking sideways or upwards? Are they rolling them to the side?
  • Forehead: is it tense or relaxed? Are there lines going vertically or horizontally between the eyebrows?
  • Head: is it held upright and facing forward? Tilting to the side or hanging down?
  • Body: is it sitting or standing straight up with shoulders back or is it saggy and “closed in”?
  • Proximity: is the person standing or sitting close to us or far away? Are they moving away as we speak?
  • Position of the hands: are they crossed in front of the person? Hanging loosely? Balled in a fist? Or on their hips?
  • Gestures: is the person waving their hand at us from side to side? Are they holding their thumb upwards or downwards?
  • Hygiene: does the person look disheveled? Do they look clean, spiffy and smelling great?

People also use what we call Paraverbal Cues

  • Tone of voice: is it relaxed, calm, and pleasant sounding? Or is it clipped, tense, or brusque?
  • Volume of voice: is it loud, quiet, or in the somewhere in the middle?
  • Pace of speech: is the person speaking very quickly? Very slowly?
  • Breathing: are they breathing rapidly? Or really slow and deep?

All of the things listed above, whether they are things we do with our face and body (Nonverbal cues), or howwe say things (Paraverbal cues) mean something when we do them! They communicate a message.

And here is the key to helping our children who struggle with social skills:

  • Support them to understand how important these nonverbal cues are in social interaction.
  • Support them to pay attention and watch for these things in others.
  • Support them to think about and understand what these cues mean when they see them.
  • Support them to respond to these messages in a way that will create positive interactions.

How do we do all this?

The first thing is for us as parents to have faith that our children can and will learn, despite the masks covering all those wonderful faces in the past 2 years! (Remember the little boy I told you about?) Children can learn how to play, work, and talk with others, read the nonverbal messages others send us and create positive social interactions despite that mouth and lower face being covered!

Our children can and have adapted. Some might just need more support, guidance and coaching than others. For those of you who have children who might need that extra bit of support, I’ll do my best to cover each of the steps I mentioned above, and how to coach and support social development in your child in my future blogs. But in the meantime, now that the world is opening up a bit, try to create and support safe social experiences for your child again, it will bring a smile to their face and yours!

– Corinne Eckert