During my first semester in college, my roommate’s boyfriend from back home broke up with her over the phone. She spent the better part of two days crying. I had no idea what to do…if anything…or what to say…if anything. I figured she probably needed support, but couldn’t imagine what that looked like.
Most of us have found ourselves in situations in which we have no idea what to do or say. Have you ever met someone new but had trouble starting a conversation? Maybe you struggled to deal with someone upset with you for no apparent reason, or with being respectful to a difficult boss. There are few people who know exactly what to do and say all the time, leaving the rest of us shaking our heads in wonder at their brilliant social maneuvers. For everyone who still cringes sometimes at our own attempts at conversation, we must admit that the skill of social behavior does not come as naturally as walking.
Why We Should Pursue Social Graces
Though most people agree that social skills are helpful and worth attaining, it’s worth pausing for a moment to recognize the true depth of their importance. Knowing how to make friends brings a great benefit to our social lives, and frequent social mistakes conversely can isolate us. Social skills are not just for benefiting ourselves, however. When analyzing how best to obtain social skills, we must recognize that these skills are necessary for kindness, peace, and truth.
Kindness: For example, we can have generous hearts and still fail to be kind if we lack social knowledge. When my roommate was crying about her breakup, I could have shown greater kindness by reaching out to her. Because I was unsure of what to do, I neglected to show that kindness.
Peace: Social skills also play a role in calming conflict. While conflict avoidance is an unhealthy habit itself, I have observed that we could avoid unnecessary conflict through greater social dexterity. Misunderstandings often arise when we neglect phrases such as, “In my opinion,” “I understand what you are saying,” or “I believe you,” or even “thank you.”
Truth: Finally, social skills also help us to speak the truth. Confronting people who need to hear an uncomfortable truth is not often a sought-after task; sometimes we suffer from the resentment of those friends long after the fact. When those confrontations are necessary, softening the blow though adept social behavior can greatly help. God is Truth, and He wants us to speak the truth in love. In light of these virtues, we should consciously acquire social graces.
The Problem with Teaching by Osmosis
If social skills are this important, we ought to educate ourselves and our children into them. Instead, we often rely on what I call “passive socialization,” or frequent social interaction in various settings, as the means of imparting this knowledge to the next generation. Unfortunately, this laissez-faire approach does not teach us as much as we need to know. We still do not know what to say, or we get nervous about social encounters in new situations. Despite the fact that social skills contribute to our ability to be kind, promote peace, and speak the truth, they do not come naturally, nor just by “socialization.” Therefore, we must intentionally teach and learn social graces, through a combination of direct instruction and conscious imitation.
Putting someone in a social situation is not the equivalent of teaching him or her how to handle that situation. When I was in kindergarten, we had a cowboy dress-up day. I remember walking into school with my dad when my teacher greeted me with “Howdy!” I was a shy little girl and had no idea how to respond—so I did not respond at all. My dad had to tell me that it is rude to not reply—but it was too late.
Simply being in that social situation did not teach me that I needed to greet people. It took the direct instruction from my dad for me to learn that. This concept does not apply to just kindergarten me. If it were true that simply social experiences were sufficient, why do people repeatedly say the wrong thing or show a pattern of social blunders? Clearly, they have been in the social settings. Clearly, also, they have not learned any better.
We do not adopt this magical osmosis theory for anything else in education. It would be absurd to suggest that, by looking at a page with numbers or words, a student would learn to do math or read. We never expect children to form letters without first showing them. How can we expect them to handle tough situations, unless we make sure to show them? Just like math, reading, and writing, social adeptness is a learned behavior. If it were not, children would say “please,” and “thank you” without constant reminding.
Creating a Class on Social Graces
Some might argue that immersing children in social settings is similar to the immersion theory of learning language. Even in immersion language learning, however, there is intentional instruction, because the student is hearing what he or she needs to learn—the language. By contrast, in passive socialization, students may not be encountering what they need to learn—they are simply encountering the situations in which that behavior needs to be enacted. They could be watching poor role models, or they could be on their own without a clue of how to handle the situations.
While schools, as a whole, care about their students’ well-being, and strive to offer good classes for their students in a range of subjects, most programs overlook social skills as the subject of academic classes. Why is this? Perhaps it is because in educating the mind, we forget about the soul. Perhaps it is because we think that students are social enough already that they would not need more education in that field. Perhaps it is because we have too narrow a definition of education—we have lost, in a sea of what we call facts, the art of forming humans.
Just as we learn most subjects through direct instruction, we can teach students many social skills this way, too. A class on social graces, whether taught at school or through homeschooling, should include the following:
- phrases to rely on in various uncomfortable situations
- how to handle crushes (for adolescents)
- email etiquette
- how to mingle
- eating in public
- how to start a conversation
- how to carry on a conversation
- how to end a conversation
- appropriate responses to authority
- respectful disagreement
- reading body language and tone of voice
- using the correct body language and tone of voice oneself
—and the list could go on. These topics of course require practice in the real world, but we can teach them in a typical classroom setting, with notes, interactive activities, study, review, and tests. To make this class a reality, schools would only need observant teachers with life experience. Students would also benefit from the perspective of some guest speakers from time-to-time.
Learning to Learn Social Skills
Since direct instruction for something as nuanced and situation-dependent as social skills cannot teach all there is to know, conscious imitation is an excellent way to fill in the gaps and a wonderful way to learn. Educators rely on conscious imitation in such fields as language, with immersion learning, and physical education, including dance. In these classes, students watch an expert instructor before attempting the skills themselves. With social skills, the prospect is more complicated, because it requires both the expert individual and the natural situation. Nevertheless, young people (and grown individuals who feel themselves lacking in particular social skills) should make an effort to find an “expert” to hang around and imitate. They should take note of moments when someone deftly handles a social difficulty – either mentally or manually recording their observations for use in the future. One can learn many, many things by paying attention.
Because no doubt situations will arise that are beyond the scope of a class, teachers should equip students with a general framework to guide all their social interactions. Students should learn:
- have confidence (not pride) in themselves because they are made by God
- treat others with respect
- “do unto others as you would have them do to you”
- never fear the truth
- “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”
Unfortunately, public schools could not teach all of these principles, but even a secular version could cover the following: be confident, be respectful, treat others as you would want to be treated, speak the truth, and do the right thing. Along with giving students a framework for continued learning, these general principles would help lessen students’ social anxieties.
If we were to guide our children in the classroom, and encourage more opportunities for intentional imitation outside the classroom, perhaps fewer of us would have to endure that nagging feeling in our stomachs that we have, unwillingly, but out of ignorance and lack of practice, said the wrong thing.