Components of Social Communication

Social communication allows individuals to communicate or interact with others within a societal framework. Social communication encompasses social interaction, social cognition, pragmatics, and language processing. Variations for societal norms exist across and within cultures. Analysis of social communication considers the norms that are relevant to an individual in their communication environment(s) as opposed to imposing a singular set of standard social norms.

Clinicians engage in culturally responsive practice to learn more about the individual’s communication needs. Cultural variability is balanced by a universal goal of having social communication effectively meet the individual’s goals or developmental needs (Rose-Krasnor, 1997). For example, communication across power differences may vary culturally, but the communicator is still either effective or ineffective at fulfilling the purpose of their communication. Please see ASHA’s Practice Portal page on Social Communication Disorder for further details.

Different terms may be used to describe social communication throughout this document due to evolving terminology. This is particularly true of references written prior to 2013, when the American Psychiatric Association classified social (pragmatic) communication disorder as a disorder. Although the terminology used may differ, information may still be relevant and considered.    

Social Interaction

Social interaction is communication that occurs between at least two individuals. Rules of social interaction may vary significantly across cultures, communities, and physical environments. The following variations may occur:    

  • in speech style and context
  • within and across cultural groups
  • in gender communication differences
  • in language transfer (influence of one language on another)
  • in power relationships (e.g., dominance or deference)
  • in rules for linguistic politeness
  • in nonverbal communication (gestures, tone of voice, facial expression, proximity, and body postures)

The necessary abilities to facilitate a successful social interaction include the following:

  • secure attachment or attunement with a sensitive caregiver
  • emotion understanding and regulation (e.g., effectively regulating one’s emotional state and behavior while focusing attention on salient aspects of the environment and engaging in social interaction)
  • code-switching
  • social reasoning
  • peer-related social competence
  • social tasks (e.g., accessing peer groups, cooperative play)
  • conflict resolution

Social Understanding

Social understanding involves acquiring social knowledge about one’s and others’ mental actions (social cognition) and using this knowledge to plan, guide, and flexibly respond (executive function) to social interactions within a cultural or societal context (Carpendale & Lewis, 2006; Lewis & Carpendale, 2014).

Key abilities related to social cognition include the following:

  • theory of mind (ToM)
    • identifying and understanding the mental states that others have (knowledge, forgetfulness, recall, desires, and intentions)—and understanding that they may differ from one’s own
    • ability to connect emotional states to self and others
    • ability to take the perspective of another and modify social behavior and language use accordingly
  • executive functioning (e.g., organization, planning, attention, problem solving, self-monitoring, future and goal-directed behavior)
  • implicit and explicit memory
    • semantic, episodic, and autobiographical memory
  • joint attention (e.g., social orienting, establishing shared attention, monitoring emotional states, and considering another’s intentions)
  • inference
  • presupposition

Please note that ToM is a complex topic, and a full discussion of ToM is outside the scope of this document. Please see Westby and Robinson (2014) for further information.


Pragmatics is an area of social communication that focuses on goal-consistent language use in social contexts (Nelson, 2010). It is the set of rules that individuals follow when using language in conversation and other social settings. Culturally responsive practice seeks to understand pragmatic norms specific to the student, client, or patient. Pragmatics includes both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Verbal Communication

  • speech acts (e.g., requests, responses, comments, directives, demands, promises, and other communication functions)
  • communicative intentions (communicative acts)
  • speech acts (Hoff, 2014)
    • perlocutionary—the intended function of language or utterance
    • illocutionary—linguistic form of utterance
    • locutionary—effect of utterance on listener
  • prosody
  • Grice’s maxims of conversation (Grice, 1975)
    • Quantity—The contribution is as informative as required for the purpose of the exchange.
    • Quality—The contribution is genuine and based on what one believes to be true or based on adequate evidence.
    • Relation—The contribution is relevant to the topic at hand.
    • Manner—The contribution should be clear and understandable, orderly, and brief.
  • discourse
    • style—conversation, narration, expository, procedural
    • interaction/transaction
    • cohesion/coherence
    • responsiveness/assertiveness
    • topic maintenance/introduction/responsiveness/shift
    • social reciprocity (e.g., initiating and responding to bids for interaction, turn-taking)
    • communication breakdown and repair
    • deictic forms—words related to time, place, or person (e.g., “that,” “here”)
    • contingency—how much or how well an utterance relates or reflects the content of the utterance(s) that come before it
    • adjacency—carrying the thread of conversation from one utterance to the next
    • co-construction of meaning—when two individuals (e.g., a parent and a child) discuss a shared experience, thus constructing a memory together
    • event knowledge
    • scripts

Nonverbal Communication

  • body language (posture and positioning)
  • gesture
  • facial expression
  • eye contact
  • gaze (gaze shifts)
  • proxemics
  • deictic gestures—gestures related to time, place, or person (e.g., pointing, reaching)
  • representational or symbolic gestures (e.g., waving “hi” and “bye”)
  • challenging behavior as communication

Language Processing

Language processing is an area of social communication that regards internal generation of language (expressive) as well as understanding and interpretation of language (receptive). It is the transfer of thoughts and feelings into a means of expressive communication (i.e., spoken, written, signed) and the understanding and interpretation of language. 

  • spoken and written language expression and comprehension
  • morphology (word forms)
  • syntax (word order)
  • semantics—general and discipline-specific vocabulary (e.g., science, math, social studies)
  • phonological skills for spelling and reading decoding

ASHA Resources


Carpendale, J., & Lewis, C. (2006). How children develop social understanding. Blackwell Publishing.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics, Vol. 3: Speech acts (pp. 41–58). Academic Press

Hoff, E. (2014). Language development (5th ed.). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Lewis, C., & Carpendale, J. (2014). Social cognition. In P. K. Smith & C. H. Hart (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of childhood social development (2nd ed., pp. 531–548). Wiley-Blackwell.

Nelson, N. (2010). Language and literacy disorders: Infancy through adolescence. Allyn & Bacon.

Rose-Krasnor, L. (1997). The nature of social competence: A theoretical review. Social Development, 6(1), 111–135.

Westby, C., & Robinson, L. (2014). A developmental perspective for promoting theory of mind. Topics in Language Disorders, 34(4), 362–382.

Related Research

Nelson, K. (1978). How children represent knowledge of their world in and out of language: A preliminary report. In R. S. Siegler (Ed.), Children’s thinking: What develops? (pp. 255–273). Erlbaum.

Timler, G. R., Olswang, L. B., & Coggins, T. E. (2005). Social communication interventions for preschoolers: Targeting peer interactions during peer group entry and cooperative play. Seminars in Speech and Language, 26(3), 170–180.

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