The engineer and the diplomat

I used to think that I had poor social skills. So I worked hard to improve, and learned a lot of specific skills for interacting with people more effectively. My life is a lot better for it. I have deeper friendships, and conversations go interesting places fast. I'm frequently told that I'm an excellent listener and people seek me out for emotional support, and even insight into social conflict. But I'm told that I have poor social skills more often than before.

Not everyone means the same thing by social skills. It's important to distinguish between the social skills that are valued for their own sake – the social skills people identify themselves with – and the social skills that are a means subordinated to some other specific ends.

You should be persuaded by me, because I have better social skills

Once, a friend of mine was having conflict with a colleague, and her colleague made an attempt at a good-will gesture. She told him that this wasn't reassuring to her, and suggested something else he could do that would cause her to trust him more. He responded that she should really be persuaded by what he'd already done – that she should do things his way rather than the other way around because he has better social skills.

My first reaction was that this was obviously absurd. If you have better social skills, this just means that social moves you make are more likely to work. They're supposed to cause your social bids to be more effective, by causing you to make bids that are better-adapted to the people you're trying to interact with. If they don't work, your possession of social skills is not an additional argument that people should accept your social bids.

What motivates this kind of category error?

I previously wrote about how best practices for charities tend towards dishonesty, because they are the ones that work for any charity, not just ones with programs that work. I think that there is a similar tendency with respect to generalized social skills.

Just as things were getting interesting

I used to think that I was bored by large group conversations because I was bad at them. But now I think that there's a systematic tendency for them to derail as soon as things get interesting.

Imagine twenty people at a social event, milling around for a while and making conversation. Then, the host decides that these twenty people are going to have a meaningful conversation. All twenty of them, together. What do you expect to happen?

When I found myself in a room with those twenty people, I was surprised that the host was even trying to make it work.

They tried the direct approach, asking why we weren't talking about the sort of important things we'd each talked about in small conversations with the host. We were either unwilling or unable to answer.

They tried the indirect approach, proposing ways to give our group a mission, to bond us together so that began with a direct approach. The bid went nowhere.

They tried getting just a few people in the group to have an interaction in front of the others: One person seemed likely to have information crucial to whether someone else's plan would succeed or fail. It mattered. This time the attempt failed in a more interesting way. The person being asked answered a different question. The question was asked again. A different question was answered again. A third time, one question was asked, and another was answered.

Then the host tried a new tactic and asked why their friend was finding it hard to answer. The person being asked offered a plausible enough excuse.

But what happened next amazed me. Twenty people instantly found twenty different distractions. Everyone suddenly had an excuse to move their attention elsewhere – a side conversation, or a need to get a drink of water. I’d never seen such a large group coordinate well at all on anything before. But then it hit me – I’ve seen groups coordinate, effortlessly and instantaneously, to do this exact thing: to blow up a conversation as soon as things became interesting.

I never noticed it before because I thought that was just how things were. It took someone trying to do differently, and then being noticeably unhappy about the failure, before I was able to see what was happening. I’d always had a vague sense that conversations tended to get derailed as soon as things got interesting. But now I’m starting to take that literally. Conversations don't derail when things get shiny, when the conversation is flowing in a quick stream from one person to the next, when people are talking about neat stuff. They derail when things get interesting. When someone in the conversation is expending cognitive effort in a way that relates to someone’s long-run interests, this is perceived by the people with social skills as a threat – and they collude to rescue the conversation.

My whole life, I've thought I was bad at group conversations, or just plain didn't like them. The one exception has been Seminar at St. John's College, which is a very carefully managed sort of conversation, that's not generically social at all. By senior year, no one was talking just to pontificate or take up space or build rapport. The conversation was always in the hands of whoever knew the least, or had the most basic question – because that person had the most at stake.

The failure was not especially notable. There were sound reasons to want to end this particular interaction, which I won't go into because it was a private event. But what stuck out to me was that someone bothered to try to make things otherwise – and then I realized that I might have the right to wish things were otherwise as well.

The ambassador and the engineer

Imagine you’re an engineer, at an engineering conference. You see a group of your colleagues, including someone working on your project, in an intense conversation. They’re asking your friend questions, and your friend obviously has to think hard to answer them. Your intuition is going to be that something good is happening here, and you don’t want to interrupt it.

Now, imagine you’re a diplomat, at a diplomatic conference. You see a group of diplomats, including someone representing one of your allies, in an intense conversation. They’re asking the allied diplomat questions, and your ally obviously has to think hard to answer them. Your intuition is going to be that something bad is happening here, and you want to derail it at all costs.

I think that most people perceive most conversations as more like the diplomatic conference, than like the engineering conference. Challenging someone’s narrative is not a way to improve everyone’s world-model and make everyone better off; it’s a social attack against the person being challenged, a bid to lower their status and exclude them from the group. And people who want the group to get along will try and rescue the person being challenged. To divert attention from the stress-point.

Rejecting my social skills steelman

I used to think that social skills were unambiguously good for people to have – that humans have a social interface, and this is like reading the manual for how to use it. That social skills were, in short, a true art – what the Greeks meant by techne. A fully general skill-set that helped people interact with other people better. I don’t think that any longer. Or at least, I think that this is often not what people really mean.

Social skills as a true art

There are generalized skills that are useful for interacting with a human being, in a variety of contexts, for a variety of purposes. Understanding language at all is one. Understanding body language – or, more broadly, being attentive to others' emotional state – is another. If someone's in distress, that can mean that you need to ease up and focus on helping or allowing them to manage their feelings, not demand more work from them. If someone's excited, you that's a sign that you're going somewhere interesting for them. I previously wrote about acquiring this skill:

I was trying to get better at conversations, and noticed that there were two cases where I needed data and didn’t know how to get it. First, sometimes I wanted to check whether someone was engaged or uninterested, and asking them verbally often permanently derailed the conversation, even if they had been interested before. Second, sometimes I couldn’t tell whether a pause in the conversation was because they were thinking hard, or because they were waiting for me to say more (or just stuck). I didn’t want to interrupt them if they were thinking hard, but asking which situation we were in would be itself an interruption.

Then I realized that I had, in principle, a solution that didn’t pull at their attention at all: I could just look at their face. And immediately, faces became interesting to me, because I had a particular case in which I could use it, a specific felt need, that reading facial expressions could solve. […] And it didn’t just work actively when I remembered, but sometimes passively, automatically, even when I don’t consciously allocate attention to figuring out what people’s faces are telling me.

This is a set of social skills in the steelmanned sense I'd assumed people always meant: there were specific things I wanted to do with people, and I learned a general skill that gave me more ability to have these interactions. The skill, to be a skill, has to ultimately cash out in terms of more access to a thing I already wanted.

But I was wrong to assume that this was always the main thing people mean by social skills; sometimes generalized social skills actively impede getting what you want.

Social skills as diversion

In the ambassadors vs engineers example, the form social skills take is the ability to divert attention from going too far down any one track, from exploring the real, external environment (rather than merely the immediate social environment). I think that this is a central case.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is no type of social skill that is useful for affirmative cooperation. There is. I am saying that there are multiple distinct concepts wearing the name "social skills," and that one of them is diversion.

In The Hungry Soul, Leon Kass talks about the traditional dinner party. One important aspect of the dinner party is that it permits the social mixing of people with very different interests and types of private knowledge. To further this end, no two men or two women are seated adjacently. This is not to promote flirting, but to discourage talking shop. Women talking about their world would exclude men, and vice versa. The conversation, to be polite, sociable, and charming, is kept superficial. Wit and empathy are favored over knowledge and insight.

The only interests one can further in such a conversation are purely social interests. The only thing one can make progress on is social acceptance and approval.

This is not a coincidence. It is a convention. It is designed to favor the interests of those for whom it is easy.

Think about how autistic people are seen as socially unskilled. To some extent this is fair – they really do have less native talent for perceiving and navigating their social environment. But in some cases it is ridiculous. Autistic people often prefer one another's company to the company of neurotypicals. When people self-sort into two distinct groups, it seems odd to call one group socially unskilled for being unappealing to the other, without making the symmetrical judgment too.

Autistic people are in particular derided for enjoying talking about their special interests. For preferring to transfer deep knowledge about a thing they care about, rather than keeping the conversation on the level of superficial handshakes. And I like to hear about people's areas of expertise. I am less bored when people talk about a thing about the real external nonsocial world that really matters to them. If someone does a thing in a social context, that I like, and wins my affection and interest as a result, it seems very strange to call that a lack of social skill.

Am I saying that this conception of social skills is ableist? I admit that I am, as much as I dislike that word. Not in the mere sense that they discriminate against people who are bad at them (which is totally fair, some people are bad at some valuable skills). I mean it in the sense that this discrimination is not merely based on people's ability to provide value, but on their ability to meet the arbitrary standards of a coordinated cultural elite.

Social skills as the erasure of personality

A friend manages a team at work. They recently mentioned that they used to think that they should be good at managing any person in any context. That they should have fully general managing skills. They hadn’t even realized this was a potentially unjustified assumption, until another, experienced manager gave them advice: that someone can be smart and good and hard-working, and just not work well with you – and you have to accept this, move on, and find people you work well with.

My friend had bought into the assumption that to be a good manager, you have to be no one in particular. That you have to relate to the people on your team in ways that will work with anyone. That to be socially skilled you can’t have a real personality – can’t be some specific, non-interchangeable, person with limited malleability.

This is plainly inconsistent with the idea of social skills as a true art to enable certain sorts of interaction. It favors some types of interaction – and makes other productive interactions impossible. It actively interferes with playing to your strengths, if your strengths are not heavily weighted on generalized social skills.

Social skills as best practices

I've written about how best practices in advancement for nonprofits tend towards dishonesty, because they're meant to work well for all charities, even the ones with nonsense programs:

When the activity of extracting money from donors is abstracted away from the other core activities of an organization, like assessing and running programs, best practices tend towards distorting the truth. You end up with money-extraction strategies that work regardless of what the organization is doing, and those aren't going to be honest strategies.

There seems to be a similar thing going on with social skills.

I think that “social skills,” as they are usually construed, are a set of practices that are designed to lead to “social success” for anyone in any circumstance. In other words, they’re inherently opposed to conversations that are constrained by content. The self-declared socially skilled are not merely people who have learned how humans work. They’re a club of people colluding to favor a norm where social bids that are about nothing but the local social environment are the way to get ahead, against those of us who want to talk about something.

Social skills as social capacities

This does not mean that those of us who want to talk about something in particular, to do something with our conversations beyond merely making them socially successful, should ignore all social skills. Being considerate and attentive to others' state is still important. Group interactions involving physical empathy can help members of the group with emotional regulation – and it's hard to get anything done when you're stuck in a bad mental state. Anyone who has provided emotional support to a friend so that they can think about their problems knows this to be true.

Other social skills that are less central to those favored by the self-declared socially skilled – such as being attentive to the illusion of transparency and making sure people are actually on the same page – are also important.

Even the diversion of attention can be a valuable skill. If people are stuck in an unproductive conflict, redirecting attention to a more productive interaction can be extremely valuable. Attentiveness to subtle signs of social distrust or distress can also be helpful, if used as a cue, not to derail the interaction or foist generic trust-building exercises on people, but to pop up a level and address the underlying issue.

For examples of the sorts of social skills we want, we should look to people who did something interesting with them. We should look to the people who ran successful salons. We should look to managers who were effective at running real-world projects with objective, measurable results – managers like J. Robert Oppenheimer. We should look to leaders who produced substantive changes in the world, that better aligned with their preferences; leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

What we should stop doing is automatically accepting anything called social skills as desirable, merely because they are generally regarded as desirable by the socially skilled. Instead, let's use our own judgment as to which habits and heuristics are helpful, and which aspects of our social environment it is in our interest to invest in perceiving clearly. In short, we should reduce the extent to which we use "good social skills" as a proxy, and more often optimize directly for the outcomes we want.

18 thoughts on “The engineer and the diplomat

  1. Howie

    I think there's truth to aspects of this but I think your central examples of social skills as diversion is open to a much more generous interpretation. I think one reason people often divert away from "productive" conversations in large groups is that those conversations are often only of interest to a minority of group members. There's a feeling that many group members will feel excluded and that it's usually better to have those conversations in smaller groups where everybody is either interested or can contribute and where back and forth on particular points is easier.

    I think this was your only example of social skills producing worse overall outcomes because they are optimized for "social success." If diversion is also intended to produce a concrete improvement in the conversation then I think your case against "social skills" as techne is weaker.

    In my experience, people who employ diversion usually don't do so in small groups (3-5 people). I think your theory of social skills wouldn't have a great explanation for this. Why don't they collude to create a norm leading to their social success in groups of four, too?

    1. Benquo Post author

      Howie, I agree that there's sometimes a good reason for diversion, especially the one you mention. Though I feel like I should point out that fixing the size and membership of a group first, and only afterwards the topic, is itself a choice to favor more of a "social skills" dynamic than a "special interests" one. (I've had pretty good luck with groups of 6-8 people that were formed around the seed of a 2-3 person focused conversation; then housemates passing by stuck around because they found the topic interesting.)

      I've seen this kind of redirection happen in groups as small as 3 on rare occasions, when someone seemed to have an especially strong sense that they ought be practicing generic social skills lest something bad happen. I've seen this happen when I know from prior one-on-one conversations that all the people present are affirmatively interested in the topic under discussion. I've seen this happen in business meetings where it slows the meeting down or prevents work from getting done, not just social events where there's a presumed interest in making everyone feel included.

      I agree that the force towards diversion gets a lot stronger as the number of people in the group increase. I think that it rises sharply on average somewhere between 6 and 10 people. I suspect that that's partly for the reason you mention (narrow topics are more likely to be uninteresting to someone in the group when the group is larger), but partly because the intent to divert is often not conscious. Unconscious, simple cognitive patterns have an easier time subverting the conscious intent of discussants in larger groups where more coordination has to be implicit because there's just not enough verbal bandwidth to do it explicitly.

  2. Helen

    Similar to Howie's point, I think you're missing a key part of why socially skilled members of a conversation aren't optimizing for interestingness. I agree that jostling for status, managing allegiances, etc. are part of it, but you make no mention here of conversation serving the purpose of building goodwill among all participants.

    For example, one of the least status-sensitive/diplomatic/signal-y groups of people I talk with is my parents and sister. And I've noticed several times that my mother will derail conversations in that group if they get into topics I find particularly interesting, e.g. if my dad and I start arguing about game theory or market economics. I really don't think she's doing that because someone is threatened, or to advance her own social standing, or to exclude me as someone who doesn't understand the rules of the elite. She's just doing it because she (sincerely, honestly) wants everyone to get along.

    My guess is that this function of conversation (similar to handshakes being used to show that neither party is armed) used to be much more valuable/necessary. Nowadays, where the cooperativeness of all sides in an interaction can almost always be assumed, it's much safer to jump straight to content-ful topics.

    (In other words, even speaking as someone who is often frustrated by the lack of content-ful conversation with friends + family outside the Bay, I think this post is the poorer for not recognizing that non-engineers can also have noble, pro-social aims. Maybe I want to propose an addition to your dichotomy, and make it engineer/diplomat/hippy?)

    1. Benquo Post author

      I'm more inclined towards saying something like, the "diplomat" skill / disposition itself can be genuinely valuable, just like literal diplomats can help countries get along better. It seems like a lot of diplomacy in practice involves a lot of deliberately unintelligible mumbling about countries' potentially conflicting long-run interests, so they can quietly cooperate on a bunch of smaller stuff.

      The big problem is when the "diplomat" cognitive mode runs *unchecked*, and starts to control your narrative about what's socially valuable and what isn't. I'm trying to point to the thing where people assume that diversion is inherently superior to focus. I agree that never is the wrong rate at which to divert.

    2. FeepingCreature

      I can confirm a subset of this: I often argue with my dad, but even if it's productive argument my mother sometimes misparses it as aggression and tries to calm it down.

  3. Anon Ymous

    The social staus hypothesis explains far too much and is the rationalist community's Phlogiston. Additionally, looking in from the outside, I am constantly amazed at how easily and readily the disjoint between "goal: literally save the world" and "everything is just signalling" is glossed over.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Phlogiston was a pretty useful term to have at the time! It let chemists measure lots of things, make predictions about the world, etc. We've now reduced it to parts so you don't need to posit phlogiston as a substance, but it was a good thing that chemists used the term at the time. You have to have *some* hypothesis.

      I think status is similar. It can obviously be overused or an inappropriate semantic stop sign, but it also stands in for something very real, that needs to be reduced to underlying factors in a precise way. I think prestige and dominance might be better terms, but they don't express the whole thing, and sometimes we care about a thing that doesn't decompose well into those two factors.

      I agree on "save the world" vs "everything is signalling".

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  10. Phil Goetz

    This reminds me of something I realized when reviewing the causes of failed projects I'd worked on. I couldn't think of any projects that failed because a team member had poor social skills, but I could list many projects that failed, or projects where success or failure were diverted onto people not responsible for them, because a key person /had/ social skills. I would rather have co-workers with poor social skills than co-workers with good social skills, because it's the latter who will stab you in the back.

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