Archive for February, 2012


Social Skills for Geeks


In the 90s, being a poser was the worst thing you could possibly be. Growing up then instilled in me a deep respect for authenticity and a deep-seated disdain for anyone that was not 100% genuine. Which created a really hard problem for me when I committed to teaching for a living.

Teaching requires social skills, which I will loosely define here as the art of comfortable conversation with a relative stranger. If you don’t feel comfortable around me as a student, you will shut down. And then it doesn’t matter how interesting my topic is or how valuable my material is. You’re closed off to me. So I need you to connect with me. A lot of careers require this skill–project manager, artist selling your work, essentially any that involve interaction with others.

There are common approaches to connecting with people that I think lead to suspicion: agreeing with someone else’s views whatever they might be, for example, or trying to adopt their persona. For a great example, see Saturday Night Live’s skit of Chris Christie endorsing Mitt Romney, to the disappointment of a news corps that would clearly prefer the fun-loving Christie to the straight and narrow Romney. Everyone laughs affectionately when Christie says he loves “you meatballs.” The crowd goes silent when Romney awkwardly tries to capture the same love by addressing “you balls of meat.”

The solution

What I do in causal settings, what I suspect the socially adept superstars like Oprah and George Clooney do, is look for things I genuinely find interesting in other people. For example, I have a deep interest in the day to day challenges of different careers. The more I understand about the daily work of a designer or an entrepreneur or a doctor, the better I can get at designing classes for them. The simple and socially acceptable question, “What do you do day to day?” is a treasure trove for me. I ask that question and then just follow my curiosity depending on whatever they say.

But let’s say you couldn’t give a damn about other careers. You’re a programmer, and what you like to do is solve the puzzles your job affords you, and that’s about all you care to know about the work place. As a side note, I would say you’re missing out. Understanding others’ careers is helpful to anyone. But the world is an interesting place, and other people are doorways to lots of things. What do you want to know? Are you a foodie? Steer the conversation toward the last good place someone ate. Interested in different areas of the country? Steer the conversation to where the person might have lived. It helps to have some standby questions, so if you have a second, you may want to think about what those might be for you.

The threats

That’s the positive advice. There are also two things worth noting that could get in your way: social anxiety and first impressions. To the best of my knowledge, social anxiety comes down to one thing–fear of others’ judgment. Will they think I’m smart, funny, cultured, whatever? My personal concern for a while was talent. My friends, recognizing this, decided to take advantage by putting me up to ridiculous challenges like eating an entire ball of wasabi or doing a backflip. Which I would then always accept and frequently regret. Friends are great.

The reason anxiety is a problem is that you are judging your performance while you are performing, which just shuts down the entire operation. Trying to socialize while worrying about your social “value” is like trying to talk while focusing on every muscle movement required to speak. Action and self-analysis are both important but you can only do one at a time (I can think of examples that seem like exceptions, but I don’t think they actually are).

The solution is largely to commit to step number one–focusing on the other person. If what’s on your mind is their value, you can’t focus on their judgement. Further, when you do find something you want to talk about, the conversation takes on a life of its own.

But your anxiety might be too much to push away. In the moment of conversation, there’s not much you can do about that, but it’s certainly something you can work on another time. Anxiety is a big topic, and there’s an entire profession devoted to helping people get over it. But I think the most important thing is to identify the very fact that you are anxious and figure out why. What is the scenario you are fearing? But there’s a lot more to be said about that another time.

The last thing is first impressions. And that’s about clothing and hygiene. I don’t want to say too much about this because they’re not exactly my area of expertise, but they are a big part of a stranger’s perception of you. My credibility at JetBlue skyrocketed the day I started ironing. I would enlist the opinion of someone you trust and just ask how you’re coming off. If you are okay with your dirty hoodie and tattered jeans giving off a first impression that you’re a high schooler that hates the world, then that’s how that is. But you may want to wash them and start brushing your teeth.

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