Social Skills 101

<August 2012> Truth? I can’t tell you whether social skills are something one is born with, or whether they can be learned if one wasn’t born with them. I just honestly don’t know. I also don’t know whether people who don’t have good social skills know they don’t have them. And I somehow doubt that one can come right out & say to a person “Um. You seem to have kind of low social skills.” (Maybe if you are a social worker or something…)

I do hope that maybe people who don’t have them (& know or suspect they may not have them) could take a look at this list & see whether any of these suggestions are helpful. Maybe try them out as an experiment, & see whether they seem to help simplify life at all.

(People with good social skills may be taken aback at this list, that such utterly simple & seemingly self-evident things are even being mentioned. I have given all of this quite a bit of thought. If the tips are useful to you, they are useful. If not, just turn the page!)

Okay, here goes:

Ask questions (or ask for help) when there is something puzzling you or something that you need or want to know. I am pretty sure most human beings actually actively enjoy being helpful. Asking a simple, direct question is soooo much more sensible than just jumping to a (frequently) inaccurate conclusion, or making an assumption that turns out to be wrong-wrong-wrong. (Trust me, reader, I am articulating this one as much for myself as for anyone! I sometimes need to hear & listen to my own good advice!? ) Not making assumptions, btw, is one of the 4 “agreements” so well explained in the book The Four Agreements, a book that has proven endlessly helpful to me, that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Be helpful & considerate as much as humanly possible – it feels ever so much better inside than being witchy & grumpy. Good manners are really an awesome thing. People really appreciate them (& their absence is very quickly noted!). Consideration is a lovely circular phenomenon: when you are considerate to others, they are very often considerate in return. How lovely is that, hmmm?

Say please & thank you often! Gratitude is positively magical, & really, so are simple appreciation & good manners. They smooth relations between people – even strangers – & they just make everyone feel good. I always say it’s never too late to say thank you, & of course remembering to say please is always a good idea!

Apologies are utterly magical. Apologize when you have stepped in it, or neglected or insulted or lost your cool with someone or something or … whatever. One of my favourite quotations is “Apology is a lovely perfume; it can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift.” It was Margaret Lee Runbeck who said this, & I couldn’t agree more!  

Apologize. Explain. You know that saying “Never apologize, never explain?” In my opinion, this is absolutely terrible advice. Apologize! Explain! Apologies & explanations clear the air in almost miraculous fashion, they really do. (I think we all know this, really, hmmm??) btw, too, I wrote once about men & apologies; you'll find it here. [Later post called 'Apologize. Explain.']

Be authentic. Most of us can spot phoneyness a mile away (I bet even really phoney people can!), & children sniff it out like bloodhounds. It’s challenging at times, finding the balance between authenticity & consideration/politeness – but that balance is worth striving for!

Introduce people to each other any time you find yourself in a situation where you know the people who are present, & others don’t. Sometimes people with low social skills don’t realize they should do this, so just jump in. For example, just introduce yourself if no one has thought to introduce you. “Hi, I’m Janet, & you are ---??” will do the trick, cut through the awkwardness & jump-start the conversation.

Speaking of which, conversation is really positively magical. I’ve even been known to say it’s the whole darn karmic enchilada! (WDKE for short.) Good conversation cannot be forced, directed, or made to go in a direction you feel determined to have it go (if you force it, it will not be good conversation!). Good conversation is organic; it just happens … it flows. Essential elements: listening well. Not interrupting. Not trying to hog the floor. Being open…patient…generous with your listening. Greatly, greatly rewarding when you learn to do this!!      Another favourite quotation: “It’s one of the secrets of the world. We all have the key to one another’s locks. But until we start to talk, we don’t know it.” (So said Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s ‘Bookworm’ radio show.)

Let friendliness be your default position. There is no need to look out at the world with a scowly face or attitude – unless you want the world to reflect this back at you! I once saw a sign on a cottage resort billboard that said “Smile at the world, and the world will smile back,” & I really do believe this is true. Being friendly rather than unfriendly also helps you be in a better mood! This is not to say you need to grin wildly at every person you pass on the street. I am now living in Canada’s largest city & find I am having to adjust my behaviour here somewhat, compared to when I lived out in the country or in a small town – for the sake of simple safety, obviously. But still, I am friendly & polite with sales clerks or bus drivers or coffee shop staff or any fellow humans with whom I do wind up engaging in conversation. It just feels good! (It also comes utterly naturally to me, but I am not so sure it always did. Practice makes perfect!)

Avoiding eye contact with “strangers” is a simple but important way we keep ourselves safe in the big city. On subways & buses it’s best not to look directly at people who, for the most part, we can assume, don’t want to feel as though their privacy or anonymity is being invaded. One thing you can do on a crowded subway (or streetcar) sometimes is to simply sit with your eyes closed. This is very restful, & it makes you feel as though you are not on that crowded subway car at all!

Don’t pick your nose in public!  EEEEEEEEEEkkkkkkkkk. No one wants to watch you do this, OK? Trust me, you need to trust me on this.

Watch out for other people when walking down a sidewalk (or standing in a crowded subway car, or navigating the aisles of a crowded store). Don’t hog all the available space, as though you’re the only person on the planet who really matters. A little bit less of this self-absorbed “Everything is all about ME” attitude would probably be a pretty helpful thing in this troubled world of ours…don’t you think?

Secrecy & lies breed more secrecy & lies. Being authentic (which is good for your soul; all the wise folks say so!) & a culture of secrecy/lies are mutually exclusive. Look for a good balance between 100% in-your-face truth & lying every time you turn around. (Hint: “little white lies” are sometimes necessary, & telling everyone what we think 100% of the time would clearly be neither helpful, desirable, advisable nor necessary.) I personally do believe quite passionately in telling the truth (that’s what this whole blog is about, really!) – & I also care quite a lot about not hurting people’s feelings. Yes, it’s all a bit of a delicate dance & balancing act – & one worth spending some of one’s energy learning to navigate well!

Learn good cell phone manners. Please! The world is not dying to know the minutiae of your life, I feel quite sure (for sure I am not at all interested. In return, I will refrain from subjecting you to listening to the minutiae of mine!). In many cases, cell phone use is simply rather rude. Please take a moment to learn how to turn your cell phone off. Please also learn to keep your voice down while talking on it. & remember! Our answering machines/services exist for a reason. We need not respond immediately to every call that comes in!

Respond promptly to e-mail & phone messages. People are not able to know what you think or are planning or have on your mind until you tell them! Most of us are not mind-readers!!    Staying in touch with people you care about (heck, sometimes even people you don’t care about  but are obliged to stay in contact with) is meant to be a 2-way street, not 1-way. 

Pay people compliments – authentic ones, mind you, not phoney ones! If someone looks really good, say so! Be specific, e.g., “I love your new haircut” or “That sweater looks great on you!” I am not great at this myself, btw, but am working on it. What comes to me is that it’s a good exercise to always look for the positives in life in general…in our relationships, & in the people we love, in particular. Whatever you do, though, don’t be phoney about this. Phoneyness will cost you your credibility, & that is something you really don’t want to lose. (Think how little we trust politicians & corporate hotshots, for example; these are people who are widely perceived to be very inauthentic indeed.)

When someone offers you something, accept it with grace. I love the Don Henley song ‘Wedding Day’ & the line “To want what we have, to take what we’re given with grace.” Even if you don’t really like or want the item, accept it with grace. Say thank you. (You can always give it away later if you don’t like it. But when someone offers you something, it is churlish not to accept it gracefully. I just went against my own good advice on this today, & feel quite cruddy about it.)

Leave notes for people you are staying with, or living with, or otherwise let them know what you are up to (most of us are not mind-readers; see above!). This is just simple consideration, really, & it helps make life run ever so much more smoothly.

Understand that not everything that happens on Planet Earth is all about you. Sorry about that! In another cool Don Henley song, ‘Nobody else in the world but you’ Henley sings, “There’s lots of other people here too.” Yup. Yup, yup, yup. A very important life lesson to learn is to not take everything personally. (This is another of The Four Agreements, all of which are really very helpful!)

“Can I be the space for this to happen?” is a useful phrase to say inside our head sometimes. I’m pretty sure I picked this up from reading Eckhart Tolle (one of my modern-day heroes, for sure!!). When someone is boring you or ranting or otherwise being maybe just a tad on the annoying side, but you have enough presence of mind at that moment to see that this person needs to have an audience for whatever it is s/he is saying, it can be useful to just basically be present for the person. (Not to put too fine a point on it, Eckhart Tolle, or on Janetsplanet, ET for short, can change your life. No kidding! I’ve posted items about him here, here, here & here. ET is soooooooo helpful….)

** I am pretty convinced that good social skills can help make our lives easier, more enjoyable & just generally run a lot more smoothly. If this little essay’s tips help even one person, I’ll know I haven’t wasted my time thinking (& writing!) about this.


p.s. I’d really enjoy getting some feedback on this essay! Please let me know via a comment to the blog if you feel these suggestions are helpful. (If you think they suck, please be gentle with me; use your good social skills. ) 

p.p.s. a few more thoughts on this topic, several days after posting this: whether or not we have "good social skills," it is not always easy to broach awkward topics with people one feels the need to discuss challenging topics with. I have sometimes thought that people who seem to have low social skills are more awkward to have a really rollicking good conversation with on a regular basis -- & for now, I stand by this thought. But I do want anyone who reads this who suspects s/he is somewhat deficient in the SS dept. to understand this: that sometimes we really need to discuss deeply difficult things with people we care about very deeply -- & that sometimes we just can't seem to find our way to doing it. And that can lead to unfortunate consequences. (I have been there, & more than once, I'm afraid.) Humour can sometimes be a good way to deal with sensitive things. But....sometimes there is just no easy way to do really hard things. On occasion, maybe a sensitively-worded letter is a better option. (Sometimes, maybe one attempts the sensitive written communication & receives no feedback.       ) How can I summarize all this? Communicating with people is a challenging, challenging business; there's just no getting around that. Hmmmm. I think I am being driven back to Marshall Rosenberg, a man who really knows a lot about how to have the difficult conversations. Yup. (You can check him out here )

'Quote of the day' with this post: “We bless the life around us far more than we realize. Many simple, ordinary things that we do can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the brief touch, the willingness to listen generously, the warm smile or wink of recognition. We can even bless total strangers and be blessed by them. Big messages come in small packages. All it may take to restore someone’s trust in life may be returning a lost earring or a dropped glove.” – Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings – Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging