Thoughts On Social Advice That Portrays Basic, Core Skills As Being Advanced
I run a site on social skills, so naturally I do lots of reading on the subject. One thing I've noticed over the years is that a fair amount of social advice sells what I'd consider basic, fundamental skills as being high-end. For example, I'll read an article titled something like "7 Keys To Being Instantly Magnetic". Or I'll see a book description which promises to teach you "how to leave an unforgettable first impression". To me, if someone is "instantly magnetic" or leaves an "unforgettable (positive) first impression" their social skills are at a rare, elite level. I hardly ever meet people like that in my day-to-day life. So what do the articles or books say are the secrets to reaching such heights? Almost always, it's nothing-special suggestions such as:
- Make eye contact
- Have a firm handshake
- Be a good listener
- Take an interest in people and ask them questions about themselves
- Have open, friendly body language
- Speak with a clear voice
- Don't make mistakes such as bragging or interrupting
- Focus on the person you're speaking to, and don't get distracted.
- ...and so on.
It's not that those skills aren't useful, but they're ordinary, baseline things that every adult should know. Saying good eye contact is a key to "making an unforgettable first impression" is like claiming "knowing how to play chords" is a key to being a world-famous guitarist. Those skills are technically central and important, but if someone wants to know what separates an average, functional person from the very best, they're hoping for some more advanced info.
Some reasons ho-hum advice is over-hyped so often
If someone is making money off their advice they may figure they'll get more clicks or sales if they exaggerate. Who wouldn't want to learn "little-known techniques to gain rapport with anyone within seconds"? The alternative doesn't have the same ring to it: "Here are some basic conversation and body language tips. They'll make you come across as a typical friendly, pleasant, reasonably-confident person. If you weren't doing some of them up until now, they're certainly crucial to know. They won't let you create instant chemistry with anyone though, because the world doesn't work like that. It's impossible to click with everybody."
Not all over-hyped basic tips are because of cynical marketing. I've seen people sincerely explain simple principles as if they were the path to world-class social skills. I can come up with two other explanations:
Charismatic people do use basic skills, but execute them at a higher level
People with great social skills aren't using a special, hidden playbook. When someone observes that likable, magnetic people smile, listen well, and show friendly body language, they're not wrong. What they often fail, or don't know, to point out is that socially savvy people use those skills in a more polished, consistent way. The problem is it's often hard to break down exactly how a high-performer is using a skill better than someone who's so-so. We know it when you see it; we can tell Person A's eye contact is a little more inviting than Person B's. But we don't have the vocabulary to explain it further. We can't say, "Their eyes have 22% more friendly twinkle than usual. That's why I feel so accepted when I'm talking to them." When someone is writing about it, all they can really say is "Charismatic people make good eye contact, so do that."
Maybe many people don't use even basic social skills often enough, so just doing more of them than average will make you stand out
On one hand things like comfortable body language and showing an interest in others are baseline skills. On the other hand, most of us slack off on at least some them. You meet people every day whose non-verbals unintentionally make them seem unengaged, or who can only listen for 10 seconds before turning the conversation back on themselves, and on and on. It's not necessarily that they're jerks. They just don't know any better, or they were taught the skills once, but forgot them, or only use them sporadically.
Arguably, if you can execute on more of the oft-neglected basics than the typical person, you'll seem extra-socially savvy. To pick some arbitrary numbers, let's say there are 9 core parts to making a good first impression. Maybe your typical person does 6 of them. If you can do 8, you're ahead of the pack. No, you still won't reach that hyperbolic level of being "instantly magnetic", but you'll do well for yourself. Maybe when someone writes X supposed keys to being likable, all they're saying is, "Actually do all of these. Most people don't."