Social Signals: From Awkward Encounters to Best Friends
Some people just have it. None of us really know what ‘it’ is, but we tend to call it social charisma. As I write this, I am sitting at a desk in the British Library in London, UK, opposite a young male French student who is studying here, and two other British female students next to him (I don’t know any these people). The male was a stranger to the female pair only moments ago. But now they are fully engaged in a verbal dialogue full of smiles and honest enjoyment. The interaction brings to mind the kind of dance that some colorful species of male bird might do to attract a mate. And this guy is the most colorful in the entire library. It really doesn’t seem to be the stuff that he says, but the way that he says it. Anyone who listens is bound to be enthralled, purely through the non-verbal communicative signals he is giving off. I am certainly enthralled. And I am certainly more than a little odd because I have been glancing and eavesdropping on this situation for far too long by any normal standard.
New social situations are a pretty tense environment for many of us. We want to be liked and the feeling of being judged is anxiety-inducing. For some people with neuropsychiatric disorders, the experience is even more salient. Tourette syndrome is a disorder characterized by unwanted, rapid, repeated, and sudden movements of the body. These movements are called tics and they can include eye blinks, facial movements, and vocalizations. During a research project I was running in Germany in 2014, I chatted with a Tourette Syndrome patient about their social experiences. He was the only patient I had met who suffered from severe vocal tics, and it was interesting to talk to him about how that affected his life. He would tell me nightmarish stories about his experiences on local buses for example, where he would involuntarily shout Nazi slogans, and get beaten up in response, by people who thought he was some kind of racist demagogue (remember this is in Germany, and in case you didn’t know, German society is a little sensitive when it comes to speech related to Nazism). He went on to say his tics were always at their worst when it was least appropriate for him to tic, which sounds like the kind of torture the most evil person in the universe would inflict upon their victims. The content of vocal tics and their frequency will depend on a patient’s anxieties in the moment. Indeed, when I introduced myself as “Erman”, this word featured prominently in the rest of his vocal tics during our time in the room together. He may have adopted it because it was a noticeably unusual name, and because repeatedly shouting it might be considered awkward and inappropriate. With time, it settled down, perhaps because I did my best not to respond to it. But as you can probably imagine, it is quite difficult to avoid reacting when someone shouts your name.
The experience with the patient I mentioned above is a revealing one that we can all relate to, at least to some small and less extreme extent. Social situations provide many of our biggest opportunities to embarrass ourselves, ruin our reputations, and be widely hated. Loneliness is one of the most dangerous psychological threats to our mental wellbeing, and it exposes the deep evolutionary roots of social networks. Historically, friends and family have been essential for care and safety. Although we could lead a physically safe life without them in the modern world, we would struggle to shake the yearning feeling for loving people around us.
One big question is, do we know anything about what makes people likable and effective at building positive relationships? The first bandwagon people jump on in explaining this phenomenon is social mimicry. We like people who copy our behavior as we interact with them, and we also mimic the people we like. This mimicry usually involves small physical actions like adjusting our posture or touching our face while talking, and there is evidence that this characterizes communication between people who are enjoying each other’s company. When a scientific stooge mimics a participant in conversation during an experiment, the participant feels they have a stronger rapport with that stooge, and they perceive the interaction to be smoother, even when the participant is not at all aware of any mimicry. Most of us have probably noticed the special quality of mimicry when interacting with infants, where we are more likely to exaggerate our facial expressions so that they are no longer subtle unconscious movements. Infants react more positively to adults who mimic them and the adults seem unable to stop themselves from maniacally copying every expression on the infant’s face.
So mimicry does seem to work, but it’s likely to perform best when it’s under the radar and detected only unconsciously. If we try too hard with it, there is a strong chance the person being copied will pick up on a slightly odd or robotic communicational style, which is likely to drive them away rather than make them like us more. And there is most certainly more to the story. Remember the guy I described at the library? I watched with my eagle eye and failed to spot anything coming close to mimicry from him.
Touch is another powerful social signal. We do not use it much in Western societies, especially in places like the UK where even extended eye contact creates a sense of awkwardness. But it is certainly a core part of our evolutionary history. Primates, including chimpanzees, groom each other as a social bonding technique, not just as a means to keep clean and eat a parasite or two. The total time that individuals within some primate species spend grooming each other correlates with the strength of their relationship. A chimpanzee is more likely to share food with another chimpanzee if the second has groomed the first within the last two hours, and similar patterns are found when analyzing the likelihoods that one baboon will help another when under attack. The time and effort that primates devote to social grooming is unlike any grooming found elsewhere in the animal kingdom, with some primate species spending up to 20% of their day touching and brushing each other.
Humans are exceptionally good at verbal communication, so our relationships are generally dominated by speaking to each other. But we still enjoy touching our closer friends and family. Mothers stroke their children, and if my childhood is anything to go by, then mothers also incessantly groom their child’s hair when they see a note from school describing a hair lice epidemic. Romantic partners also enjoy physical contact now and again, although common jokes would suggest their urges generally decline with the duration of their relationship. Teammates in sport develop elaborate handshake protocols, often exclusive to individual pairs of players, which they execute religiously upon meeting. They fist bump when expressing determination or condolence during weak performance, but reserve chest bumps for scoring celebrations. Waitresses who briefly touch their customers on the shoulder or hand also get larger tips than those who do not, regardless of the gender of the customer.
There is little doubt that touch is capable of strengthening the social bond between people, and positively impacting behavior. It is not necessarily a good idea to comb through the hair of the next stranger you meet. But it is helpful to consider the power and benefit of the sense of touch between loved ones. Subtle pats on the back or arm can enhance friendships, even without a person noticing them. Closer friends are more likely to want to touch each other in the first place, and touching is likely to drive them even closer. Touch is an influential and important social behavior, but that can make it both a very good and a very bad thing, depending on its context. It’s not something we should flippantly hand out like a cookie. So please, use it wisely.
Social behaviors vary between cultures and people, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building strong connections with the people we meet. Some people love hugs and contact, while others will stick to a firm handshake. This complexity in human sociality can cause those awkward hug-handshake hybrid moments when we meet new people, but it also underlies the diversity that we love about the world. It’s always useful to understand the commonalities between us in the way we interact: emotion, mimicry, touch, humor. But in the end, we have to treat each new person we meet as an individual, and work out the ideal way to interact with them in order to build a positive relationship. I don’t know about you, but I find that exciting.