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 readers "how to leave an incredible first impression". To me, if someone is "instantly magnetic" or leaves an "incredible 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 eye contact is a key to "making an incredible first impression" is like claiming "knowing how to mute strings" 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 a few other explanations:
An attempt to motivate people
Fixing up your rusty social skills doesn't always feel like a particularly exciting goal, especially compared with dreams of becoming ultra-likable or a dating master. It's more motivating to feel like you're working toward a glamorous, rewarding life, rather than correcting a deficit. Whether they're conscious of it or not, some advice givers try to nudge people into learning basic skills by telling them they're actually learning advanced tactics that will make their fantasy life a reality.
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 ten seconds before turning the conversation back to 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 nine core parts to making a good first impression. Maybe your typical person does six of them. If you can do eight, 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 about X supposed keys to being likable, all they're saying is, "Actually do all of these. Most people don't."