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Learn the 5 Levels of Social Cues with Jordan Harbinger

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Can you learn to read social cues? The answer is YES!

But first, what are social cues?

Social cues are signals we send to others indicating our emotions, preferences and ideas. They also communicate our intentions using body language, voice tone and word usage.

What are the social cues you should know?

I sat down with my friend Jordan Harbinger, host of The Jordan Harbinger Show, to discuss how to end a conversation and avoiding awkward interactions.

This time, I’m the one being interviewed and I have lots of tips, social cues and stories in the video and article below. Enjoy!

We’ve talked a lot about how to start conversations, how to meet people and good nonverbal cues for first impressions, but today I want to explore a different topic. How do you leave a conversation? How do you get out of social situations?

I accidentally figured out this was a skill. I talk and teach about first impressions all the time. Everything from making a grand entrance to walking into a room and wowing the audience, but I realized one day that how we leave or exit an interaction is just as important as the approach.

This is what I call the “lasting last impression.” If you don’t know how to exit a conversation, the whole thing ends so awkwardly it can ruin your entire interaction. I have a whole video below on the art of the lasting impression:

Just like a workout, your conversation needs a warm-up and a cool-down. The warm-up is your first impression, the chitchat, the “get to know you’s.

The cool-down begins at the first sign of a lull in the conversation, when you have to go to the bathroom or you notice your conversation partner eyeing the bar for a refill. One of the easiest ways you can verbally ease into the cool-down and out of the conversation entirely is in the form of a Future Mention.

A Future Mention shifts the timing of the conversation from the present to the future. A few examples include:

“So, what are you up to this weekend?” or

“What are you up to later this evening?”

As you sense the conversation wrapping up, you can use that Future Mention to non-awkwardly end the conversation by saying something like, “Have a great time at the ballet on Saturday!” or “I hope the Seahawks can pull out a win. Enjoy the game!”

Or if you know you’ll see this person at an upcoming event, “Well, I can’t wait to see you at that ___ coming up—I’ll email you!”

Another option for your cool-down, if you didn’t discuss future plans, is a statement about a follow-up. This is the perfect time to exchange business cards, mention you’ll email them about the project you discussed or, more specifically, that tomorrow you’ll follow up with them on LinkedIn. This gives you and your partner a runway for a really easy exit.

I’ve noticed that most conversations seem to have a natural fade out, but you don’t always know if the other person is on the same page. Or in some cases, you’re talking to one person and a third person approaches, sometimes ignoring you entirely. How do you deal with that?

Here are my tips on interruptions. It is your responsibility if you are interrupting someone, or if you’re the person who knows both people, to make the smooth transition. Be a smooth interrupter–approach gently, introduce yourself to the new person, and if you’re the person who knows both parties, introduce the two of them. Bonus if you can share a commonality between the two, such as they’re both from the same hometown or they both attended the same event last year.

I tend to introduce myself loudly as soon as there’s a silence in the conversation.

I think that’s okay! The bull in the china shop approach can work. We’ve all been in conversational settings where there’s the elephant in the room: the one person in the group who hasn’t been introduced, who hasn’t introduced themselves, or hasn’t spoken at all. Sometimes this may be because someone doesn’t know their name.  And if you don’t know someone’s name, there are subtle ways to get around it, such as talking to someone in the group you do know:

“Danielle, meet my new friend. He’s interested in x, y, z.”

Then, typically, Danielle will ask the new friend his name. I also have a hidden rule with everyone I’m close with that if I introduce them first, I don’t know the other person’s name. It looks like:

“This is my husband, Scott.”

Then Scott will say to the person, “Nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

This saves a lot of awkward moments. All your wingmen and wingwomen should know this rule!

Back to the rude interrupter.

Let’s break this down. If you enter into a conversation with a big group, most likely you’ll be sidelined. The group flow doesn’t always stop to address one new person. What I’ll often do in this scenario is sidle up to the one person in the group who has very open body language–the person in the group angled out or looking around. I’ll walk up to them and say something like, “Hey, your conversation looks fun. Can I join?”

Almost always this person is happy for me to join and opens the circle to welcome me in. Often this person then will introduce me to the rest of the group.

If you can make it graceful and converse with the other group members, they eventually will assume you know the other people already, even though you just met everyone.

Exactly! Another way I enter into a group dynamic is through the slow warm-up. I make sure I’m demonstrative with my social approval after I’ve approached a group. This means I’m:

  • Laughing a lot at jokes
  • Making more eye contact with the group members
  • Responding verbally to comments and stories with “Oh really?” or “Interesting!” or “Wow!”

Do you have an interrupter in your life? A person who asks about something or how you are and, before you can answer, they launch into their own story? If so, here are my favorite strategies:

The Emotional Bookmark

In this strategy, you tell the interrupter how long you need before you start talking. For example, if someone asks, “Where are you from?” you can answer with “I’ve actually lived in three different places.” This bookmarks to the interrupter that you have three places to mention and that they can’t talk again until you’ve named all three.

Or if you’re discussing a project with an interrupting boss, you can say, “The project timeline has two phases.” This way, they’ll know there’s a part one and a part two. It’s basically a way to offer a table of contents to your sentences!

Often, interrupters interrupt out of fear that the conversation will die or someone will run out of things to say. With the bookmark technique, they can rest assured you have this part of the conversation covered, that they can take a verbal break.

What about the socially unaware interrupter, who isn’t saying “there’s three things…” but instead talking about what they are going to say next to show how interesting they are? 

Yes! I know the type. This brings me to my second tip:

Nonverbal Ways to Get Someone to Stop Talking

I’ve put together an entire video below on how to nicely interrupt someone and not be rude:

Level 1: The Fish

Let’s say you’re talking to someone and they just keeping going and going. We intuitively know that when someone opens their mouth to say something we should stop talking. One thing you can try is opening your mouth at them just like a fish. When you open your mouth it indicates you have something to say. Even if you don’t let any words out of your mouth while they still are talking, just the act of slightly opening your mouth often will get people to wrap it up and give you a turn to speak.

Level 2: The Bookmark

You’re putting your hand out to show that you want to add something. The movement of your hand should draw the other person’s attention to you and the gesture itself resembles a stop or wait sign, which should prompt them to pause. The bookmark works especially well when you pair it with the fish.

Level 3: The Pupil

If they’re still talking after giving them the fish and the bookmark, then it’s time to move up to level three and give them a stronger cue. The pupil is when you literally raise your hand as if you have something to say in a classroom. From sitting through years of school we know that when someone raises their hand it means they have something they want to share. It also has a very subtle nonverbal gesture that means stop.

Level 4: The Touch

When you really have to end the conversation, reach out and touch the other person’s arm and tell them it was great speaking with them. This pulls people out of their monologues because, while they may not pay attention to your facial expressions or gestures, they will notice if you touch them.

Special Note: Touch is a personal preference and you should be cautious using this option when trying to get someone to stop talking. This is especially important for new acquaintances as well as touch between the opposite gender.

Level 5: The Teacher

When we see a teacher hold a pointer finger up, it usually means “wait a moment” or “shh” and we will be quiet. So, if you want to get a group to quiet down, you can raise your finger and look around to grab everyone’s attention. Make sure you’re standing in a location where the majority of people whom you want to stop talking can see you. Otherwise, this strategy fails to have its full effect.

I want to get a few other ideas for verbal strategies to make a lasting impression if it’s not a professional setting where we’re following-up on a project or getting a business card. We just want to get the hell out of there.

Here’s what to remember: compliments and reasons to go.

Everyone loves compliments. Everyone loves to be told they’re funny. A soft compliment such as, “Oh my gosh, that story was so amazing. Thanks for making my night. It was so fun talking to you.” can go a long way and everyone can leave that conversation on a high.

“I’m going to say hi to the host.” or “I’ll catch you guys in a bit.” And you don’t actually have to ‘catch them again’ unless it happens organically.

This is exactly right! Fill in “host” with the boss, an old college friend, a friend about to leave, a friend who just arrived, etc.

There’s also lots of legitimate reasons to leave a conversation, such as refilling your glass, grabbing food or going to the bathroom. There’s a reason that I graze on food at networking events and parties. I don’t like to sit and eat a big meal at the very beginning. I prefer to refill my plate throughout the night to have a reason to exit conversations and to mingle with other people and groups.

How do we use social cues to show someone we are not attracted to them?

This works both ways. You don’t want people to think you’re hitting on them and you want to make sure they’re not attracted to you either. One specific cue is nodding (in Western cultures). This is the vertical nod up and down, which nonverbally shows “I’m listening,” “I’m agreeing,” “I hear you.” When you pair nodding with other warmth cues that could be read as flirtatious (lots of smiling, extra loud laughing, any kind of physical touch), this can make the nodding seem more flirtatious than may be intended.

Action Step: Nod less by trying a head tilt instead. It’s hard to nod while head tilting, and it still will nonverbally show you hear them and are listening.

Let’s also discuss smiling.

Women especially are told from a young age to smile in first encounters and then during every interaction afterward. Research is pretty clear that smiling is more of a submissive nonverbal cue than a dominant one. I like to cold read rooms to figure out who’s the boss, who has a crush on whom, and to check for alliances. Often, I’ll see individuals and teams smiling toward the boss and the boss is smiling at no one.

Action Step: Smile on the first impression for instant warmth, but be wary of smiling or guilty laughing during an entire conversation unless you’re really happy. This can come across as inauthentic if you have a fake smile and we can suss this out.

What kind of touch and nonverbal cues are acceptable in social settings?

Mirrored bids is my favorite way to interact with those around me. It’s essentially an initiation by one party and a reciprocation by the receiving party. For example, if I ask my husband “How do I look?”, I’m sending out a bid for affection and attention. If he says, “You look great!”, he has received the bid and reciprocated a positive, affectionate comment.

Bids, also known as social cues, are happening all around us. From smiles to eye contact to questions–we should take these with gratitude as these all are opportunities for connection.

Other articles you might like:

Check out more of Jordan’s work at The Jordan Harbinger Show.

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