About a year ago, a friend emailed me inviting me to join a group of his friends at a baseball game. While I generally don’t do well in groups of people I don’t know, I figured it was a good opportunity to stretch myself. (I also really wanted to watch the game!) Little did I know that for this friend, “getting some friends together” involved booking a section of one hundred seats. Worse (for me) yet, of those one hundred, I was among the two or three that did not belong to a specific friend group. I tried to make the best of this difficult social situation, but simply couldn’t find my way in. Every time I’d try to speak to someone in the group, they’d turn away and talk to the person on the other side or have their attention grabbed by a friend in another row. It was a long evening.
The social dynamic of that night had a high degree of difficulty — most people would have some difficulty engaging in that context: alone in a large group of mostly predefined smaller groups, with limited mobility to move around. But regardless, my social intelligence was not up to the evening’s challenge.
According to the VIA Institute on Character Strengths, social intelligence is made up of two components: social awareness — understanding what others around you might be thinking and feeling — and social facility — understanding what to do with that awareness: “If Social Intelligence is your top strength, you are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.” Niemietz and McGrath add that people high in this strength, “can feel comfortable and say the right thing whether they’re in the boardroom or the janitorial room, in a school setting or at a construction site” (The Power of Character Strengths, 151).
The advantages of good social intelligence are pretty obvious. It’s all about building relationships and navigating often complicated social systems. Being able to do this well helps people gain friends and allies, and provides opportunities for growth and new experiences. This can have a cascade effect, where one relationship can lead to an opportunity, which can lead to another beneficial relationship, and so on.
The Biblical tradition has an interesting relationship with social intelligence, because, while it has little to say about how to navigate social situations well, the tradition has often functioned like a blueprint or scaffolding for social systems. The Torah is essentially ancient Israel’s constitution, the set of shared rules and assumptions upon which that society was built, including relationships between husbands and wives, masters and slaves, and children and parents. This is one of the primary historical roles religion has played in civilizations across the globe. In our own culture, so strongly informed by modern and postmodern thought, many of us bristle at this idea. And it’s no surprise that as ideas of personal freedom and individual growth have gained steam, traditional religious institutions have lost authority and prestige. As much as these changes — such as increased opportunities for women in society and greater attention to those people who for whatever reason don’t ‘fit’ comfortably in traditional communities — are important steps forward, I think it’s important to also recognize that something has been lost in the process too. I know so many people who are struggling to find a place where they belong, a tribe, a social niche, and a community — the very things that traditional culture and religion, for all its weaknesses, provided. Part of successfully navigating social situations is knowing how to play by the rules, but increasingly there are no rules, and so it’s no wonder so many now feel a bit lost and bewildered by it all.
There are a number of ways social intelligence can go awry. Too little social intelligence can lead to social awkwardness and naivete, and their accompanying thoughtlessness towards others. But too much social intelligence can lead to narcissism, abuse of the system, and in its most extreme form, sociopathy. For people whose social intelligence is very high and not tempered by other character traits such as kindness or humility, the system becomes a game to win, and the people they can relate to so easily can become puppets.
Niemietz and McGrath additionally note that sometimes being high in the social awareness aspect of social intelligence can create weakness in the social facility aspect: “If your awareness of what motivates others becomes too high, you may find yourself becoming overly cautious or inhibited. You can overanalyze situations, spending too much time thinking about what others in the situation are thinking and feeling, to the point of missing opportunities for yourself” (156). Put in simpler terms, being too aware of what others might be thinking or feeling can lead us to be too much in our own heads and miss out on being present to the interactions.
What are some ways we can improve our social intelligence? Some ideas include:
- If you are highly empathetic, be sure to spend time with people whose moods you want to catch;
- If you have a hard time understanding others’ emotions, practice noticing, labeling, and expressing emotions.
- Intentionally mirror the emotions of others as a way of connecting to them;
- Imagine your worst-case social scenario and think about how you would navigate it successfully;
- If you don’t know what to say to someone you have met, harness your character trait of curiosity:
- What is keeping you busy these days?
- Are you working on anything interesting?
- Use context clues (clothing, drink, food)
- For more insight about how you relate to others, take this Empathy Quotient quiz
- Most importantly, if your social anxiety is keeping you from living the life you want, be sure to seek out professional counselling.