Social Intelligence


A person with high social intelligence has a set of ‘antennae’ that are strong enough to  be a guide for what will give another more comfort than pain.

We are used to thinking of “intelligence” as a single entity.  But it’s not so simple.  To be sure, we have IQ scores and other measures of a person’s capacity for understanding abstract ideas and processing information.  But traditional measures of intelligence are notoriously imprecise.  The term itself is difficult to operationalize, something that must happen with any “objective” measure.  It’s thus problematic to saddle an individual with a number that is supposed to stand as a representation of their cognitive skills. It’s not unlike establishing the overall worth of a car by the time it takes it to go from 0 to 60 mph.  People put a lot of stock in both kinds of numbers.  But to do so is mostly a fool’s errand.  By contrast, there surely is something of value in the idea of social intelligence, even though it also will not easily yield to social science metrics.

Broadly speaking, social intelligence is a capacity to “read” others and various human environments with an ability to adjust to relevant norms.  In practical terms, this turns out to be mostly a function of a person’s skill in knowing how to respond in a given environment.  Psychologists sometimes talk about ‘theory of mind” as the related capacity to be able to anticipate what is going on in another person’s life, making adjustments that are more empathetic than indifferent.  We know it when we see it, as when another person has said what seems like just the right thing to a needy friend.

As the effective use of impressions that we give off,  social intelligence is best understood as a function of our ability to perform words and deeds that are a good match for a given situation. 

In actual fact, there are assorted ways we can sense another person high social intelligence: their abilities to self-monitor impulses that might be awkward, a willingness to engage even with strangers, the capacity to listen to another and respond appropriately.  A person with high social intelligence has a set of ‘social antennae’ that are strong enough to  grasp what will give more comfort than pain to another.

The phrase “social intelligence” is perhaps most clearly associated with the psychologist, Daniel Goleman, and his best-selling book under the same name (Bantam, 2006).  The book is a worthwhile study, even if its subtitle badly oversells the subject as a “science of human relationships.”  And there’s the rub.

Years ago a less flamboyant sociologist, Erving Goffman, reminded us that social relationships are predicated on functional presentational skills.  He talked about “impression management” and role taking as skills situated at the core of our relational world.  The model he adopted was less “scientific”–meaning capable of precise measurement–and more properly seen as “dramatistic.”  We are actors creating responses appropriate to a given scene.

The shift in perspective makes a big difference.  As the effective use of impressions that we give off,  social intelligence is best understood as a function of our ability to perform words and deeds that are a good match for a given situation. There is no single standard or set of norms or skills, but infinite possibilities: something we sense when we consider ranges of dramatic possibilities.

This is why the dominant art form in our lives is film in all of its variations and platforms.  Seeing individuals act in the presence of others is always a potential touchstone.  Comedy generally lets us see people behaving badly, or at least inappropriately.  Our laughter flows from a recognition of violated social codes.  And drama puts in us close to see moments when lives can be transformed.  It isn’t the transformation itself that grabs us. It’s a character’s response to the problem that precipitated it. Their reactions are how we come to know the features of their character, especially their aptitude for rising to meet social circumstances fraught with complexities.

In a sense we are all critics of performances, using personal preferences and floating standards to assess the responses of others.  This more open-ended dramatic framework gives us the kind of pluralism of potential responses we need to understand the marvels and occasional disasters that unfold in social encounters.