Social Exercises

The most important part of many math textbooks (besides the definitions of new terms) is the exercises. Give as many examples as you want, but unless people are really thinking about how to solve the problems at hand, they’re not learning as well as they could be. Skill comes (eventually) through a hard process of failing, trying again, and eventually making progress towards deep understanding.

Many social skills books (at least the ones I’ve found) do not operate this way. I can understand these books not having rigorous definitions, but the lack of exercises is strange. The closest many get is a set of recommendations, but often these aren’t as useful as the authors seem to think they are. Even the best books will contain advice like “Be comfortable letting people know you like them”.1 For someone whose main issue is discomfort around other people, this is beyond useless.

Many social skills books with decent exercises are directed at children, which makes sense. They stand to gain the most, and the majority of adults are able to get by on the skills they currently have. But I think there’d definitely be a market for a book of social exercises aimed at adults with average levels of comfort interacting with others, who just want to improve as they want to improve any other aspect of their life. Even the books currently targeted at adults always seem to be a bit basic or foundational. This intermediate-level book quite possibly exists, but I haven’t been lucky enough to find it yet.

The people I’m imagining are reasonably comfortable in day-to-day life. They get by. However, they may want to improve for a variety of reasons, whether to have better relationships or to get better at making new friends, or to improve their standing at work. They may just want to improve for the sake of being better than they were yesterday, and that’s fine too. If that doesn’t convince you, think about it instrumentally. What goal is not better served by enlisting the help of others along the way?

Along with trite platitudes, many of these books read like a bizarre litany of false classifications, or author-specific methods. In a book otherwise pretty well-stocked in the exercises-and-actual-useful-advice department, you’ll find lists of the three essential components of charisma (presence, power, and warmth, apparently), along with a breakdown of charisma’s four varieties (focus, visionary, kindness, and authority).2 Who’s to say that there are exactly four kinds of charisma and not three or five?

I don’t think breaking charisma down into components to better focus on each component is a bad idea. However, when the breakdown seems so arbitrary yet authoritative, it doesn’t quite ring true. A set of high-quality social exercises will have to be believed in by its audience, otherwise it risks losing them, or they’ll perform the exercises half-heartedly and won’t get the maximum possible benefit.

This isn’t to say that these exercises can’t exist. Some of them can even be thought of on your own. Certainly you can come up with a few ways to practice specific skills you’ve been wanting to practice. However, there’s a lot of room between one of those $300 online courses that promises to make every aspect of your life easier in 6 simple steps, and a structured guidebook of ways to practice and improve with ever-increasing challenge.

Perhaps the issue is that people with great social lives, like great athletes, aren’t really sure what they’re doing differently. It just feels natural to them, so they don’t have to think about the techniques they’re employing at all. Both these classes of individual likely have a great deal of practice under their belts, which can explain at least some of their relative competence. However, what’s the last sports autobiography you read that really revealed a deep difference in the way athletes think? According to the greats themselves, most of it comes down to some amount of innate talent or fondness for the sport, and a hell of a lot of practice. There’s no book Roger Federer can hand you that will make you anywhere near as good at tennis as he is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve at all.

I think many people would be interested in that kind of resource (on a smaller scale, of course) for their social lives. Anyone who can come up with a well-structured praxis for human interaction would be doing a great deal of social good. As individuals improve, so too does the society they comprise, and I believe a society where every individual is almost as they are now, but with slightly less anxiety in social dealings, is clearly a better one.

  1. The Social Skills Guidebook. Chris Macleod. 2016. Please note that this quote is a bit cherry-picked. I’ve only read a few, but if I had to recommend one book on this topic, it’d be this one.

  2. The Charisma Myth. Olivia Fox Cabane. 2012.

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