Tag Archives: social intelligence

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Parked in Adolescence

Various forms of popular software have narrowed the parameters of personal growth.

Last week I approached a recruiter from a local college steeped in the Liberal Arts: the same institution I worked at for many years. She was staffing a table at a local street fair, and was in the midst of a conversation with a prospect–I’m guessing a high school junior or senior–trying to entice him to visit the campus.  She offered him some free stuff, and he did help himself to a bottle of hand sanitizer. But he was not interested in the slick and college magazine that included articles on recent student work and experiences.  She tried a couple of times to give him a copy. But without a pause or any sense of irony, he said he wasn’t interested. “I don’t like to read,” he noted.

Are there Navy Seals who can’t swim?  Any doctors who faint at the sight of blood? I suppressed a grimace after hearing the prospect’s response.  It was no longer my job to query his apparent shallowness.  Even so, his response was a reminder that there are sometimes conversations I’m sorry to have overheard.

Luckily, there are still of adolescents who are voracious readers.  But the young man at the booth represented a larger pattern that might be found in the many disengaged adolescents who pull back from the busy and demanding world, settling in to their own digital refuges of screens and games. Today, kids spend hours gazing into the small screen on a hand, or parked in a game nest they’ve created in their bedroom.  It is little wonder that some now have less interest to pursue the endless storehouses of American culture offered on printed pages or their pixel equivalents.  One sign of this extended adolescence was reported a few years ago by researcher Sherry Turkle, who documented the experiences of teachers who often find kids who “tend to respond like younger children.”  As one teacher noted, “Twelve-year-olds play on the playground like-eight-year-olds. They don’t seem able to put themselves in the places of other children.”  Has the game chair replaced the more communal space of a grass playing field?

The growth of technology for communication at a distance allows a person to grow comfortable with digital isolation.  But it comes at a price we all have to pay. The gamer cum intelligence leaker Jack Teixeira followed what is becoming a familiar pattern of the withdrawal of some young males from a balanced life. He was a member of the Air National Guard, but reportedly found his personal niche playing online games, and trying to be what the Washington Post described as a “commanding persona online.”  We now know that his desire to make his mark—even at a distance—involved passing on a trove of U.S. secrets. His distorted way to dramatize his worth required no social skills, and apparently no sense of connectedness and responsibility to the people damaged by his intelligence leaks. All he needed was a video monitor facing a plush game chair a few feet away.

As researchers like Turkle, Jaron Lanier have noted, we are delaying or destroying the natural curve of human development by allowing children to park in adolescence as gamers and fantasists. Many are able to stay in their own heads rather than engage in relationships they will need to fully mature. In what was once a language used to assess social isolation in early childhood, their “play” is typically more “parallel” than “interactive.” Computer software rather than human institutions are setting up the parameters of their attention. Eye-hand coordination matters more than empathy; they are of the world rather than in it. And this narrow zone of existence is self-perpetuating, especially in the awkward years, when it is easier to find meaning in mechanical or electrical systems rather than the open spaces of human experience.

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The Useful Idea of Social Intelligence

A person with high social intelligence has a set of ‘antennae’ that can be a guide for behavior that 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 “objective” and comparative measures.  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. You can do it, but it misses a lot. By contrast, there is something of greater value in the idea of social intelligence, even though it also will not easily yield to the insistence in most of the social sciences for specific metrics.

Broadly speaking, social intelligence is a capacity to “read” others and make adjustments to meet their expectations and norms. In practical terms, this turns out to be mostly a function of a person’s skill in knowing how to use a familiar ‘script’ employed in a given setting.  Opening a door for someone with a heavy load or asking the perfunctory “How are you?” are common scripted behaviors.

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.  We have also walked away from a conversation suddenly realizing that we wadded into a topic they consider taboo.

In actual fact, there are assorted ways we can sense another person’s social intelligence: in their abilities to self-monitor impulses that might be awkward, in a general willingness to engage even with strangers, or generally knowing how to listen to another and make appropriate responses. A person with high social intelligence could be said to have 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 oversells the subject as a “science of human relationships.”

My own favorite thinker in this area is the less flamboyant sociologist, Erving Goffman. In his ever-popular Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) he notes that we are actors creating responses appropriate to a given scene.  I don’t believe he ever used the phrase, but he was dogged in reminding us that social relationships are predicated on functional presentational skills. He talked about “impression management” and role taking as capacities that lie at the core of our relational world.  His mode of explanation was based less in survey research, using instead a method of deep description, giving simple exchanges a careful ‘reading’ of what they mean and reveal.

When observers see Donald Trump’s behavior as sometimes “unpresidential,” they are doing a kind of dramatic critique. 

The shift in perspective makes a big difference. 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, effects or skills, but infinite possibilities.

This is why the dominant art form in our lives is film, with 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 us in 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.  For example, when observers see Donald Trump’s acts as sometimes “unpresidential,” they are doing a kind of dramatic critique.  However smart he is or isn’t, he is mostly graceless around others.  People have favorite examples.  One of mine: refusing to shake hands with Germany’s Angela Merkel during a White House photo-op early in his administration.

A final thought: It’s not unreasonable to expect a challenge to the Goffman view of social dramas on the grounds that digital media that was not around in his day takes us out of public spaces.  We obviously communicate much more via devices, and often with complete anonymity.  In these media we hardly pay attention to polite rules of engagement. Our statements can be all of “us” with little worry about “them.” Current research suggests this may be happening with our youth, who seem to struggle more to willingly meet adults and strangers face to face.  The nominal discomfort most of us felt growing into the adult world has lately grown to levels in the young that approach paralyzing fear.

I suspect that’s our problem more than it was his.  Social norms may change, but the need to match our behavior to them does not.