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  • Writer's pictureHope Arnold

What Is a Social Signal?

Have you ever noticed that you can tell someone is in a bad mood or really stressed just by the look on their face? Or maybe you know when a loved one is upset on the phone just by the tone of their voice? These are great examples of how powerful social signals are.


A social signal is any behavior someone can see (or hear) us do regardless of our intention. What’s really important, is that no matter what we are feeling or thinking, our body, voice and face express social signals constantly. You may have very small social signals (think stoicism or a flat face) or big ones (like giant hand gestures), nonetheless both convey something about your inner state of being, even if you don’t mean for them to convey it.


For example, you might feel really excited to go on a date with a new love interest, but start fidgeting during dinner, so the social signal the person interprets is that you are anxious or bored; while your intention might be that you don’t even notice you are doing it and you are thrilled to be there. Eek, this can be a giant problem if you want to be asked out again!


A second example would be, let's say you get in an argument with a friend, and then turn and walk away in the middle of the discussion. Your friend might think you are rude, or don't care about them, or intentionally trying to make them mad; while your intention could be that you are totally overwhelmed and flooded with emotions and need a break to calm down.


Thirdly, imagine you are some who is very interested in "saying the right thing" to everyone all the time. You think about everything that comes out of your mouth with such detail that sometimes you can't even listen to what other people are saying, as you are so focused internally. This is the intention -- saying the proper thing. The social signal people see when you are doing this is, a fake plastered smile and vacant nod. You may have no idea that this is what people are witnessing when they talk to you, as you are so concerned with presenting yourself in the best light. It signals to others that you are fake or disinterested in what they have to say.


RO DBT teaches that social signals matter. It matters how we show up in the world and how we convey our inner experience. It matters if our intention and signaling match up well in intimate relationships, so we can get close to others. It matters that we think about the context of an interaction to figure out how we want to social signal our values and our goals in relationships.


If you have ever had the experience of being misinterpreted or misunderstood… and haven’t we all!... then you might use those times as examples of how perhaps your social signaling needs a tune up. For many clients with overcontrol, this is a very common experience. Some of our clients feel clueless about how to problem solve something as abstract as being misunderstood. RO DBT uses a clients values and goals to figure out how to change any problematic social signaling, so they can build the life they want to share with others. A well trained RO DBT therapist can help with targeting your maladapative social signals.


Sound interesting or know you need some help in the social signaling department? Shoot us an email to schedule an assessment to see if RO DBT is right for you.

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