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Archive for October, 2012

A popular criticism levelled at the high IQ community is that they have “no social skills”. Well, then the question must be asked: what exactly do the everyday folks mean by “social skills”? And do they even know themselves?

I was discussing with my partner the other day about how I have encountered people completely moving the goalposts on what I was taught from an early age was correct social behaviour.

I feel that my family of origin did an adequate job of teaching me the rules of human engagement: remembering one’s P’s and Q’s, waiting one’s turn, how to greet or address people formally or informally, correct table manners, waiting to be offered things instead of loudly demanding them, etc.

Before I was formally identified as being a high-functioning Aspie, I would have vehemently denied a lack of social skills, and to be perfectly frank, I’m not sure I buy it now.

Here are some examples:

1. Let’s say Mary and I have been talking alone in room (it doesn’t matter what about). Susan enters and says hi. I can almost guarantee what will happen sooner or later. The conversation might very briefly go from a two-way encounter to a three-way encounter while basic pleasantries are being exchanged.

However, at some point, the conversation will switch to being between Mary and Susan, with me listening on the sidelines. By the time I realise I have been left out, the Mary/Susan exchange will be too far down the road to easily find an entry point back in. It’s almost as if from Mary’s point of view, I would do as a conversation partner if there is no one else there, but just as certain particles form stronger bonds with certain other particles and weaker ones with others, the preference to chat only with Susan wins out.

They are both rude: Mary for turning all her attention to Susan, and Susan for not realizing that she had taken over an existing conversation. I was brought up to realize that excluding someone and monopolising the conversation were rude. However, it seems the way that all the hypothetical Marys and Susans I’ve encountered think that it’s up to you to just keep making your presence known, however you do that.

2. A group of people at a gathering invite me to come and join them. (Perhaps they all know each other much more than they know me.) However, once seated in their circle, they endlessly talk about people known to them but not to me, or about sports I do not follow, TV shows I do not watch, places I haven’t visited, or aspects of popular culture about which I know nothing.

Where I grew up, only talking about subjects about which another person present knows nothing, and therefore cannot participate, was considered impolite. The person who simply barged their way into the conversation was considered crude.

But I’ve been in similar situations where members of the group have eventually commented, “You’re very quiet,” or even made a remark like, “You’re boring, you don’t say anything!” In other words, these people’s entire purpose of inviting another there is not to include that person and put them at their ease, but an expectation that the invitee will provide entertainment value.

Again, these people seem to think that it is simply up to you to push your way into the conversation and join in somehow, anyhow, just for the sake of making your presence known.

3. At a gathering where I do not know anyone, I enter a room full of people whose conversations are already in full swing. I try to catch someone’s eye or look for a friendly face, hoping that I won’t be completely invisible to the other people and spend the evening in the kitchen.

This is very rude, both on the part of the host and other attendees. I was taught that if you invite someone, you welcome them when they arrive and introduce them to the other guests. Yet here’s the 180 degree switcheroo most people these days run on you – they seem to expect YOU to do the approaching, and if you haven’t gotten the attention of the group and won them over within a couple of minutes, again, you’re deemed to have “poor social skills”.

However, in all cases, rather than realize their own manners are lacking, people choose to place the onus on the person who is getting left out.

A recent exchange of letters in a London free newspaper illustrates this same phenomenon perfectly, where a pregnant woman wondered why so few commuters offered her a seat on the Tube. As expected, there were all the usual replies along the lines of, “If you need a seat, just ask,” and “You’re pregnant, not mute.”

As far as I’m concerned, if someone is obviously pregnant, injured, ill or otherwise more needing of a seat on the train or bus than most, and no fellow traveller is offering a seat, there must be something wrong with those remaining seated: either with their eyesight, their thinking processes, or their manners. Perhaps that pregnant woman felt as I would: she would grit her teeth, hold on, and hope no one would elbow her bump, rather than risk being ignored or refused by the people she asked, while other passengers stared at her for speaking up.

Instead of being a clear-cut set of methods of conduct which can easily be taught, it is perceived that you either have this Ingredient X or you don’t – which leaves the door wide open for the crude steamrollering of those who were brought up with traditional, old-fashioned manners.

My partner says it sounds like a case of poor breeding on the part of all the people concerned in the scenarios above, rather than poor social skills on my part.

So, just how is Joe Public defining social skills, if basic “manners” will not do?

It’s hard to figure out exactly, and that uncertainty in pinning it down to a set of behaviours and attitudes that can be precisely defined and delineated makes things quite hit-and-miss.

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Philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl called yesterday for private schools to open their doors to all poor gifted students, whether or not their parents were able to afford the fees, the Evening Standard reported.

While there are a lot of questions I could raise, such as what identification methods might be used to identify those students who would qualify (and how do we ensure those who really need the opportunity but who might never be recognized as “gifted” by teacher assessment are not left out?), I agree with the sentiment, at least.

In fact, I would suggest that the proposal doesn’t go far enough – why private schools? Why not a one-on-one tutoring scheme with a completely unique, tailored educational plan co-written by the student? But of course we know that’s not going to happen.

And while I doubt Sir Peter is an avowed ageist, isn’t he forgetting something here?  Servicing gifted children is good, and must be done. But what about gifted adults? If gifted children should be offered inexpensive or free places at private school, shouldn’t gifted adults be afforded the same opportunities in higher education?

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