We’ve all had times when we’ve misread a social situation or misjudged how someone else will react to something. For some, these are rare occurrences, but others feel that they lack social awareness most or all of the time.
If you have low social awareness, you might feel like you rarely understand social situations, that you often say the wrong thing, or that you don’t understand why people react badly to things.
You can improve your social awareness with practice. The great thing about working on your social awareness is that it will probably help to improve all of your other social and relationship skills as well.
- What is social awareness?
- How to improve social awareness
- Common questions
Before working on social awareness, it’s helpful to have a definition:
Social awareness is the ability to recognize and accurately interpret social situations.
This is entirely about understanding the social world, not interacting with it. Social awareness is a precursor to being socially adept and a core component of emotional intelligence. You need to recognize how people feel before you can decide on your response.
Knowing that social awareness develops throughout our lives is good news if you’re struggling with it. You have loads of opportunities to improve. You just need a good strategy. Here are some steps to increase your social awareness.
Increase your social awareness by paying attention. This can be difficult if you’re not sure exactly what to pay attention to. Start by seeing what you naturally notice.
Trying to pay attention to all social information at once can be overwhelming, so try to focus on one area at a time. You could try focusing on tone of voice first and then try facial expressions as well. As you get used to “reading” each aspect, it will take less effort, and you can think about a new aspect of social awareness.
Although subtle social cues are important, paying attention to what the other person is saying is also part of improving your social awareness. Don’t get so focused on subtle cues that you miss what they’re actually saying; otherwise, you may come across as disinterested.
Active listening is when you’re giving the other person all of your attention and showing it. Try paraphrasing what they’ve said to check that you’ve understood correctly. We have more ideas of active listening in our article on how to be a better listener.
When you enter a new social situation, for example, when walking into a bar, pause for a moment to try to “read the room.” Don’t worry if you can’t pay attention to everything. Even if you only pick up one or two things, it can help.
You can try to pick up on
- Who is grouped together
- The overall energy level
- Areas of high or low energy
- Whether people are moving between groups
- A generally positive or negative mood
- Whether people are mostly formal or relaxed
- Who are the key people
This can be most valuable when you first come into a room, but you can repeat this check periodically. You’re trying to keep your finger on the pulse of the social situation. As you become more practiced, you’ll notice these things without thinking.
An ability to read body language is essential to picking up on social cues. There are so many body language signs, and we don’t have space to go through them in detail here. There are great resources here to kick-start your understanding.
The best way to get better at reading body language is by practicing. Try to notice how the people around you are standing or moving and what that tells you about them.
Don’t expect yourself to notice everything straight away. Start by looking for general impressions, such as “confident,” “happy,” or “angry.” As you get more experienced, you will become better at understanding the messages people are giving out.
Facial expressions are a key part of body language. Although some facial expressions seem to be universally understood, there are lots of details that can help you to understand more subtle distinctions between expressions.
Here is a good resource to help you understand facial expressions: VeryWellMind on facial expressions
Tones of voice can also tell us as much as body language about the social situation we’re in.
Some tones of voice are obvious, such as when someone is furious or when they are crying. Others are subtle. Understanding them is difficult because everyone has a different voice, and what might be a sign of anger from one person might be normal for another.
Rather than trying to learn abstract “rules” for what a tone of voice means, try to notice differences in people’s voices based on their emotions. You might notice that your parents’ voices get faster and louder when they’re angry, but your partner gets quieter and slower, for example.
Many people struggle to tell when someone really means something and when they are just being polite. It’s frustrating when others aren’t completely honest. That’s valid. But it can be helpful to recognize when someone is likely to be just being polite, and why.
When someone is just being polite, their non-verbal communication won’t match their words. For example, if you ask someone at work for help with a project, pay attention to their tone of voice and body language when they reply.
If they give a sigh, slowly turn towards you, avoid eye contact, and hunch their shoulders, they’re probably only agreeing because they feel they have to. If they smile, look directly at you, sound excited, and ask questions, their “yes” is probably genuine.
People tell “social lies” for different reasons. When you understand why someone might choose politeness over honesty, you can spot when it happens.
Often, they don’t want to make you uncomfortable or come across as selfish or unkind. For example, if you ask whether someone likes your shoes, they might say yes to avoid making you feel bad.
Try not to get frustrated with people for being polite. Remind yourself that they are probably trying to be kind.
Understand how a lack of social awareness comes across to others by noticing other people who struggle with it. When you realize that someone else misses social cues, ask yourself how you can tell. This gives you real-life examples to help boost your awareness.
Sitcoms and romcoms often have a clueless character who struggles socially. These tend to be quite exaggerated and can be a good starting point for you. Try watching one with a trusted friend and talking about the cues the characters are missing.
Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. It lets you make an educated guess about other people’s thoughts and feelings. Once you better understand what other people might be feeling, you can understand their social cues.
Studies suggest that reading fiction can improve your empathy. The more fiction we read, the more we become interested in how others understand the world. We experience viewpoints other than our own.
Try to collect stories (by reading or from conversations) and think about how the people involved feel emotionally. Ask whether you would feel the same. You might have a different response. That’s great. Ask yourself why you would feel differently.
For example, a character might feel stressed at the thought of making dinner for their family, whilst you wouldn’t feel worried at all. You might realize that your family would be supportive, while the character has very critical parents, and their efforts won’t be seen as good enough.
Once you understand the differences, ask what it would mean to feel like the character. Imagine having such critical parents. What else would become scary?
It’s difficult to improve social awareness without improving self-awareness. Being more aware of yourself gives you the core knowledge you need to be able to understand others.
Journaling is a great way to improve your self-awareness. Try setting aside time every day to write down your thoughts and feelings. If writing doesn’t work for you, try using art or meditation to help you get in touch with your own emotions.
Understand other people by thinking about how you appear to others. Think about when you’re happy. What does that do to your body language? To your voice? What about when you’re sad or excited?
If you’re not sure how you appear, try videoing yourself and watching it back. Ask what clues others might pick up on. This can help you understand clues other people are displaying.
Don’t worry if this is difficult. Often people who are socially anxious try not to show their feelings. If you realize that you’re hiding your emotions, try to be a little more obvious and honest about them.
You can understand social situations by watching how other people respond to you. If they’re not responding the way you’d like, you’ve probably missed something important.
Pay attention to how other people respond to you during social activities. If this changes, especially quickly, you might have misread the situation. Take a second (excuse yourself if you need to) and think about what you might have missed. Consider several different possible explanations.
When you return, use these possible explanations to guide how you behave. If things get better, you’ve probably found the right explanation. If not, try thinking of what else could be going on.
You may have a “gut feeling” about how someone else is feeling. It’s tempting to ignore those instincts, but they are probably right more often than you expect.
The trick to trusting your instincts is not to assume you’re right. Accept that you have noticed something, and you think you know what is going on. You can then look for evidence to support or disprove your theory.
Even socially-savvy people make mistakes. Try to accept your mistakes, take responsibility, and learn from them.
Making a social mistake can feel awful, especially if you’ve hurt someone’s feelings. It’s easy to get defensive and tell yourself you couldn’t have known. Instead, try to understand how it happened. This makes it easier to take responsibility and know what to do differently next time.
If possible, ask the other person what went wrong. This isn’t always polite, though, especially if you’ve upset them. In those cases, try asking a trusted friend to discuss it with you. Try not to make excuses and focus on trying to learn.
Although it’s important to take responsibility for your mistakes, it’s equally important to be kind to yourself. Struggling with social awareness doesn’t make you a bad person. Being too hard on yourself can make things worse, as you might want to withdraw from social situations.
Try to accept that you won’t fix your social awareness or social skills overnight. Look for small signs of progress, such as noticing that someone is uncomfortable or correctly anticipating what would make them feel good.
Remind yourself that you might be a little oblivious, but you’re not malicious. And, importantly, you are trying to learn. Recognize that this isn’t easy and celebrate your achievements. If you miss an important social cue, try to tell yourself, “Oops. That was a mistake, but I’ve learned from it. That’s good enough…”
All of your other social skills rely on your social awareness. You could have the most incredible conversation skills, charisma, and charm, but without social awareness, you can’t use any of it at the right time or in the right way.
Having social awareness is key to the emotional, mental, and physical health benefits that come with increased social skills, including:
- Stronger relationships
- Improved education
- Higher chance of a successful career
- Better emotional and social wellbeing
- Better health
This article provides more details about how improved social skills (which rely on social awareness) can improve your life.
It can be hard to judge your social awareness. Try taking our quiz. Social awkwardness often comes from poor social awareness.
In general, you may have low social awareness if:
- You are often confused about social situations.
- You struggle to understand other people.
- You often feel you’ve said the wrong thing without knowing why.
Social awareness is learned, not an innate ability. Because our social situation is constantly changing, we keep developing social awareness throughout our lives. The awareness we need as kids is different from that you need at school as teenagers, as a student at college, or as a leader at work.