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Connecting with others: the importance of what we don’t say – an introduction to social signaling

September 1st, 2021
By Maeve O’Leary-Barrett, PhD, Psychologist

I recently attended a workshop on Radically-Open Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (RO-DBT; Lynch, 2018), a treatment approach that targets a temperament style referred to as “overcontrol”. Individuals who are high on this trait are naturally more cautious, less expressive and more rule-focused. This trait manifests itself in social relationships, where these individuals can find it difficult to feel connected with others, and can be perceived as aloof, distant or inauthentic. Indeed, this trait is considered to underlie several chronic mental health conditions, such as treatment-resistant chronic depression or anorexia nervosa, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (Lynch, 2018). Nature and nurture are important to consider here; if you were born with an overcontrolled temperament, and grew up in an environment that highly values self-control, performance or not making mistakes, it can reinforce the message that you should strongly avoid ever showing weakness or vulnerability, and make it difficult to manage certain emotions when they arise. But this will unfortunately also contribute to you feeling disconnected from others.

RO-DBT is built on the assumption that improving our capacity to connect with others is key to our psychological health. This matches my experience as a psychologist, as I notice that many clients who decide to pursue psychotherapy suffer from difficulties in their relationships with others, no matter the specific symptoms that they may present. Feeling disconnected from others is a lonely and painful experience. And the way that we express our emotions is key to our capacity to form close relationships.

To understand why, we need to think about how humans have evolved. Consider how physically unimpressive humans are compared to other predators. Our capacity to form close bonds with others and to cooperate with a group was our “super power” that enabled the species to thrive. Belonging to a tribe is necessary for our survival. And, in order to form our tribe, we developed a highly sophisticated detection system for screening those around us. RO-DBT refers to this as our “social safety system”, which automatically generates an emotional response to distinguish those who give us an impression of safety, and those who will trigger a “stay away” reaction (LaFrance, 2013). 

 

Social signaling – what is it and why is it important?

Let me introduce the concept of social signaling. This term refers to any behaviour that we do in the presence of someone else, whether it is conscious (i.e. fiddling, sighing), unintended (i.e. a yawn, clenched jaw), or deliberate (i.e. eye roll, walking away). Others around us will pick up on these behaviours and it will affect how they perceive us. Our social signaling will have a strong influence on our capacity to form close relationships. These social signaling behaviours are what our social safety system is attuned to, and will have a strong impact when it comes to forming and maintaining our relationships.

What we know is that an open expression of emotion, even when that emotion is negative, signals trustworthiness and increases social connectedness (e.g. Feinberg, Willer, & Keltner, 2011). Think of an example where you may notice that someone close to you looks “off”, and they admit, “Yeah, you’re right. I have had a crappy day. I don’t want to get into it, but things are really hectic at work.” There is something reassuring and ultimately bonding about knowing that we’re attuned to someone, and that we can share a wavelength with them. Contrast this with them rebutting your inquiry with an unconvincing “I’m fine”, which can feel distancing and confusing. It is important for our social safety system to be able to “read” those around us, in order to feel that we can have authentic connections.

There are a few social signals that are considered universal indicators of openness and interest (e.g. eye contact, smiling, the eyebrow wag, “affirmative head nods”). If you imagine entering a group of strangers, people exhibiting these social signals are the ones you will be drawn to and more likely to approach. We can also think of social signals that are considered universally “aversive”, such as facial expressions that we associate with anger (i.e. clenched jaw, furrowed brow) that will generally not encourage us to engage. It is important to note, however, that social signaling that is ambiguous is also interpreted by our social safety system as negative. Examples include a flat face that shows no expression of emotion, lack of eye contact, not smiling during greetings or interactions, or lack of emotional expression during interactions. Given that our social safety system cannot clearly interpret these expressions, we will become anxiously aroused and we will prefer not to affiliate with these individuals (e.g., Barnsley, Hempel, & Lynch, 2011). This response is visceral and may not be in our conscious awareness. For a heart-wrenching demonstration of how early on we develop a negative reaction to ambiguous social signals, check out the Still Face experiment, where we witness a baby’s distress when faced with a mother showing an unexpressive “still face”- I think we all breathe a sigh of relief when she starts engaging again.

 

What’s important in social signaling

To get you started, here is an overview of the priorities for our social safety system, social signals that are considered essential in maintaining close relationships with others.

  1. Openness- i.e., showing something so that people can “read” you. This will be perceived by our social safety systems as positive, and facilitate building a connection. (The opposite of this is when your face is blank or lacking in expression).
  2. Congruence- matching your non-verbal with your verbal communication. This involves acknowledging how you feel to the other person, even if you perceive it as “negative” (i.e. boredom, anger, sadness, jealousy). This will help others to perceive us as authentic and trustworthy, which are vital ingredients in feeling close.

The challenges

Let’s acknowledge here that there may be many reasons why we may have a hard time expressing our emotions authentically. These may be related to our temperament, as well as the family, culture or environment in which we grew up. For instance:

  1. We may not be connected with our own emotional experiences, and have a hard time identifying how we feel;
  2. We may not allow ourselves to express our emotions (i.e. certain emotions may be seen as wrong, unacceptable or dangerous). For instance, clients express beliefs to me such as “ people will judge me if they see that I feel anxious”, “I’m not allowed to be angry with my partner”;
  3. We may have a hard time matching our expressions to our emotions (some of us may naturally have a more “overcontrolled” temperament where we are less expressive and can be perceived as aloof or distant).

These cues may be interesting starting points to reflect on if you notice that you are struggling with feeling close to others. As a psychologist, one of the important parts of my role is to help individuals to identify the portion of their difficulties that may lie within their control (no matter how small it is). This is essential to feeling empowered to make some changes. In the cases of connecting with others, this involves developing an awareness of how others perceive us and reflecting on what social signals we may be sending to others, consciously or not. 

For more information on Radically-Open Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, which specifically targets challenges related to the “overcontrolled” personality style referred to above, please check out https://www.radicallyopen.net (the blog is a great introduction).

references

Barnsley, Megan C., et al.(2011). Social safeness is linked to psychological, physiological and expressive flexibility. Psychophysiology, Vol. 48. Wiley-Blackwell.

Feinberg M, Willer R, Keltner D. Flustered and faithful: embarrassment as a signal of prosociality. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012 Jan;102(1):81-97. doi: 10.1037/a0025403. Epub 2011 Sep 19. PMID: 21928915.

LaFrance, 2013. Why Smile?: The Science Behind Facial Expressions. W.W. Norton & Company.

Lynch TR. Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. Oakland (CA): Context Press; 2018.

About the author

Maeve O'Leary-Barrett received her PhD in Clinical Psychology at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec, and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
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