Why Social Success is not a "Skill"

This post was inspired by the following quote:
I don't think social skills can be judged as something that any individual person can and can't do because the people you're succeeding or failing to socialize with aren't objects.  It's always two-way.  That's why I think social skills can't be objectively judged like other skills (being able to read, being able to see). -Amanda Forest Vivian* 
People who are able to win friends, influence people and achieve their social goals are said to be "socially skilled."  Charismatic people are said to have large amounts of social skill, while some say autistic people lack it, either partially or entirely.  We try to train them to improve this skill through social skills groups and other therapies.  I believe these efforts show a fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to get along with other people.

These efforts implicitly assume that social functioning is a skill--something that is intrinsic to a person and can be measured in isolation from its environment, like intelligence (or better yet, working memory).  Remembering large amounts of information, reading quickly, creating vivid mental images, or sustaining attention for a long time are all abilities. Because abilities are qualities inherent in a person, they can be measured and compared to those of other people.

Socializing with other people is not like this.  By definition, one never interacts in isolation.  All parties involved contribute to the interaction.  Furthermore, each person's contributions cannot be neatly separated and measured because conversations are not a linear cause and effect chain brought about by one or another person's actions, but a complex feedback loop that evolves moment-to-moment as each person adapts to what the other did the instant before.  It's not that multiple "skills" come into play here--although this is true.  Rather, one cannot isolate the contribution of a particular individual to an interaction under most circumstances.

For example, suppose Sarah goes to a party and meets two strangers, Ben and Dave, and feels equally well-disposed towards them at first.  Despite behaving similarly with both, down to using the same opening lines with each of them, she develops mutual liking with Ben and mutual distrust with Dave.  Why did these interactions turn out so differently?  The outcome was influenced by each person's personality, history, values, physical appearance, goals for the interactions, and momentary mood, all of which found tangible expression in words, expressions, and body language. Ben and Dave may not have been aware of all the information they were communicating  through their words, expressions and body language, nor what cues they were using to infer Sarah's qualities.  One might say, "Sarah's interactions with Ben and Dave turned out differently because Ben was clearly a nice person, while Dave was clearly a scumbag," or in other words, the difference was like this:

s + b = outcome1
s + d = outcome2
b =/=d
therefore outcome1 =/= outcome2
(Where s stands for Sarah, b stands for Ben, d = Dave, outcome1 stands for the success of Sarah's & Ben's interaction, and outcome2 stands for the success of Sarah & Dave's interaction).

But actually, without knowing it herself, Sarah reacted slightly differently to Ben and Dave's behavior, thus changing her contribution as well.  Furthermore, the idea of an additive equation drastically oversimplifies the situation because at every conversational turn, Ben and Dave might part ways, giving Sarah an opportunity to react differently in her turn--giving Ben and Dave further opportunities to differ, and so on over potentially dozens of conversational turns.  Given that conversational turns can occur every few seconds, in a long interaction (e.g., several hours long), the forking paths grow exponentially to the point that they might as well be infinite.

So suppose you wanted to compare Ben and Dave's social ability and argue that Sarah liked Ben and not Dave because Ben was more socially skilled than Dave.  One could not do so easily because one would not only have to process exponentially-forking paths but determine how much of the forking was due to Ben (or Dave) and how much was due to Sarah.

Thus, the only social intelligence that could possibly exist in a situation like this is that of the entire group of individuals currently interacting.  There is no such thing as social "skill."

Of course, some people do well every time they choose to interact, while others fail every time.  The saying "the common denominator is you" does apply to some extent.  But consider that even the most socially unsuccessful person acts not in a vacuum but in response to others' behavior.  Furthermore, very few are truly uniformly socially unsuccessful.  Many experience positive interactions and long-lasting relationships when allowed to interact with people of different ages rather than age peers, or people who share common interests and experiences rather than only geographic proximity.  Autistic people can often connect deeply with NT family members, and even those who cannot figure out how to connect with NTs often develop friendships with other autistic people with comparative ease.

This lack of uniformity suggests that most of the time, when an interaction fails, it is due not to one person's lack of social skills.  Rather, it occurs because of mismatches between the individuals involved.  They might desire something different from their interactions (e.g., "small talk" vs. "deep conversation" about feelings or values vs. intellectual debate).  They might have different interests or values (reality TV vs. indie bands, anime vs. political activism).  They might use different body language norms (e.g., interpreting lack of eye contact as unfriendly vs. viewing it as polite).  An extreme introvert and an extreme extrovert could annoy equal numbers of people.  Social norms that served you well growing up may make you unpopular if you move across the country or even change schools or jobs.

Arguably, almost no one is inherently a social failure.

Thus, our approach to people who don't fit in is fundamentally misguided.  This isn't just an academic issue; treating social functioning as a skill can do real harm.  Many people see a person not fitting in and say, "this is happening because they have poor social skills," but they ignore the provocations that led the person to behave in this socially unacceptable way, and they do not tell the provocateurs to stop contributing to the person's isolation.

For example, in second grade, Adam was "friends" with two boys in his class, Bob and Chuck, who teased him mercilessly. After a while, Adam would lose his temper and yell at them, and once in a while he hit them. His teacher would lecture Adam for his loud, obvious misbehavior, and treated the bullies almost as "teacher's pets."  This injustice really made Adam lose control.  One might dismiss this teacher as simply oblivious or uncaring (and indeed, she happened to be a bad teacher), but plenty of kind, attentive people say similar things and act in similar ways, especially when it comes to children with autism.  The result is to condone, and even implicitly support, bullying, and to blame one child for the faults committed by all parties.

As the quote from Amanda Forest Vivian suggests, many autistic self-advocates would agree that social interactions are not matters of "social skill" and each person's contribution matters.  Thus, we should not always blame the autistic person for their social failures and expect them to do 100% of the changing while allowing truly egregious NT behavior to continue.  However, I perceive many autistic self-advocates as going to the opposite extreme. In reaction to being told all their lives to do all the work and changing, they seem to hand the responsibility entirely back to NTs.  Ironically, this would support the idea that people with autism are less socially skilled than NTs--otherwise, they would be able to handle an equal share of the social load.  These self-advocates' attitude, while understandable, is not only unrealistic, but it may turn off people who might otherwise support them.

On the other hand, much of the therapy to which we assign autistic children does operate on these false assumptions and place all the onus on autistic people to change, ignoring our own contributions to their social failures. All of us--parents, friends, teachers, clinicians, and researchers--need to reexamine these assumptions and revise how we treat autistic people accordingly.

*I just went back and read through many of her entries trying to find this quote and link directly to it, but I couldn't, so I'm linking you to her entries on social skills instead.  They're pretty interesting in their own right.