When Socialising Is Like Maths

Most people don't seem to have a natural affinity for mathematics. It requires a different kind of thinking, more demanding and harder to cotton on to. For many people socialising is like maths.

The Naturals, and the Not So Naturals

Some people are 'naturals' when it comes to socialising. They have an easy manner, they have the gift of the gab, they are confident when meeting strangers. Some are not such naturals. They find it hard to make small talk, they feel awkward with strangers, and they lack confidence in socialising. Some are the absolute opposite of naturals, but most are somewhere in between.

This article is written for those who are fairly confident socially and thereby gain some responsibility for those who are less socially adept.

It is about gaining more sympathy for those who lack social skills by getting a better understanding of why that might be the case. It will be instructive to compare social skills and mathematics.

Most people don't seem to have a natural affinity for mathematics. It requires a different kind of thinking, more abstract and less obvious. You can't just 'wing it' by getting a general idea, but need to know exactly what each thing means.

I have a clear memory from school days about this. More than most subjects, maths depends on good teaching. The teacher has to be able understand exactly why a student can't understand. I remember one day the teacher was writing on the board and explaining what he was doing as he went along. At a certain point he said, "This ... therefore ... this." That is, he had written the first part of an equation of some sort and then gone onto the second part, with the link between them being an insight he assumed people would have grasped.

I put my hand up and asked, "What do you mean 'therefore this'?" I couldn't see that the second part followed on from the first. The insight was missing. But the teacher couldn't understand what it was that I couldn't understand, and of course I couldn't explain it, because I didn't know what it was that I didn't understand. I'm sure I would have been capable of understanding it, but I never did get that point, because the teacher couldn't get himself into the mindset of someone who couldn't understand it. For him it was so obvious that he couldn't think of any other way of explaining it. He was merely mystified and frustrated, and eventually just moved on to something else.

Mathematics is a difficult subject because of that kind of thing. You can't just fudge it. With each of those insights that you don't get you fall further and further behind. It has a cumulative effect until eventually you can't go any further. It would require a lot of remedial teaching from an expert tutor to help you catch back up again.

There are people for whom socialising is a lot like maths.

As they grow up they miss various cues and fail to learn various skills and they have no helpful tutor to help them keep up. As others race ahead and easily form friendships and mix with all sorts of people, they struggle along trying to work out why it is that they are such an 'acquired taste', which most people show no inclination to acquire.

As well as the fairly small percentage of people who are at the extreme end of the scale, there are many others who get along OK up to a point, but feel they are still lacking a fair bit. They have a circle of friends among whom they are accepted, but find it hard to become socially adept more generally. They wish they could feel more at ease with a wide range of people. This issue is accentuated when dealing with the opposite sex, which adds a whole additional layer of complication, with which even fairly confident people can struggle.

The Form of Social Interaction

So how can people learn to be more socially adept? I want to focus here on a single key idea - that of the form of social interaction. What does this mean? The following is a list of some forms of social interaction:

  • giving a formal speech
  • singing a song to an audience
  • acting in a play
  • playing tennis
  • welcoming a visitor to your home
  • accepting a medal at an awards ceremony
  • teaching a class
  • visiting someone in hospital
  • proposing marriage
  • informal conversation

Each of these situations involves some conventions of behaviour that need to be learned. Some we learn as children, some as adults, and others we need to learn to fulfil certain jobs or social roles.

When most people think of social skills they think of informal conversation. This is a form of social interaction. But it is only one form, and it has one characteristic that is highly relevant here.

Informal conversation is a highly complex form of social interaction.

If you are one of those people for whom the 'maths' of social interaction comes easily you might be surprised to hear this. Surely informal conversation is one of the simplest forms, you might think. But this is because it comes easily to you. In fact its very informality and looseness and variability make it quite complex, and for many people quite difficult to learn. It has so many variables that if you don't just pick it up intuitively it is hard to learn step by step.

Compare this to another type of conversation, that of someone serving at a shop counter. This kind of conversation has a much narrower range, and is bounded by limited expectations. It can be carried on using very simple formulae. For example, "Good morning sir/madam. How can I help you?" Then when the person responds it will be for a limited range of meanings. "Hello. Yes, I would like to buy one loaf of bread please." "Very well, sir/madam. I'll just get it for you." And so on. This is the kind of social skill that can be learnt and practiced much more easily. Once you have the words down pat you can work on trying to smile as well. Over time repetition brings smoothness and confidence.

Those who struggle with social awkwardness need the help of more structured social forms.

Informal conversation can seem to them to be without any clearly discernible form. They are not sure what they are supposed to do next. For whatever reasons they didn't pick this up intuitively, in which case they have to learn it step by step like other complex skills that don't come naturally.

Adding Intentional Form to Social Occasions

The general solution is to intentionally add more form to social occasions. We already do this in some ways. For example, at a dinner party, the host might prepare in advance a number of games - perhaps a trivia quiz, or charades.

If the only social form is conversation, some of the guests are likely to be disadvantaged and find it hard to participate.

In any reasonable sized group, even half a dozen, there might be one or two people who contribute very little. They can feel disempowered by the situation and find it hard to engage. This is even more so in a group of a dozen. But having some organised activity provides a different social structuring principle, some of which suit some people, and some suit others.

For those who are socially confident this can seem mystifying. They can't see why everyone can't just participate equally. And since these occasions are often, perhaps mostly, organised by socially confident people they just put on a dinner, or a BBQ, and leave it to people to simply mingle and chat.

Yet many people experience this kind of gathering as disappointing and even alienating.

They are looking for more structured forms of interaction to help them participate.

Have you ever seen the TV show "The Big Bang Theory"? It revolves around a group of socially awkward 'nerds' who long to be more accepted by the 'popular' people. They are constantly aware of their social disability. In one episode they are invited by Leonard's popular, attractive neighbour Penny to come to her place for a party. Somehow they got the idea that it was a fancy dress party. They got excited at the idea of dressing up in costumes, and presumed there would be prizes for the best costume, and so on. When they turned up no one else was in costume. They were very disappointed, and of course everyone else perceived them as the odd ones out.

However, there is an interesting lesson here. In their own way they were more insightful about social dynamics than the 'cool' ones were. The others simply milled around chatting informally and looking for opportunities to hook up and make out.

Their only 'social structuring principle' was alcohol.

They simply turn up at any such occasion, drink a lot to lower inhibitions, and look to hook up with someone. Meanwhile the 'nerds' actually had the better insight into how to have a good time. You didn't have to get drunk, but you could make your own fun by adding form to the social encounter. They realised they were not as socially adept in the broader sense, but they knew how to make their own fun.

A Lesson for Leaders

One of the key skills of social leadership is to develop an understanding of an array of forms of interaction that can be used on different occasions. Try to find out what works for different kinds of people, and how to get them involved. Those who feel themselves to be socially awkward will be good allies in this process precisely because of their greater awareness of not fitting in. They will be grateful for any attempts to include them, and may turn out to be more adept in some ways than those to whom it all comes more easily. And if you're someone who found maths difficult at school, perhaps it will give you some idea of the feelings of those who struggle to develop ease in socialising.