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.


  1. Yay! Thank you for explaining this so clearly. I think the quote you start with might be something that I said in the comments of one of those posts, but I can't find it either.

    Probably not to your surprise I do take issue with this:

    "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."

    As Wikipedia would say, who? Me? Adam?

    "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."

    Actually, even if it was true it wouldn't necessarily support that idea. There are a few reasons to believe that the average person with autism is under more stress than someone without autism. And people with autism could be overtaxed for other reasons.

    If I'm talking to someone who's having a depressive episode and is kind of fuzzed out, I'll probably end up doing more of the heavy lifting/sacrifices in our interaction because they just don't have the mental stamina to do as much as I can. If I'm doing a math problem with someone in that state, I'll probably end up doing more math--even if they are actually better at math than I am.

    I get that it's kind of a joke, and I'm already regretting complaining about this because I think your blog is really cool. It took me several posts to realize that you don't have autism (right?)--which is really refreshing given how othering some psych/neuro writers can be. You write about disabled people like we are normal to you.

    But I feel like people with autism can't even ask to be treated equally--or try to make a point by applying flipped double standards to a situation--without someone saying that we're asking for special treatment. So the "irony" does not really come across for me?

    (I guess you could be referring to the pockets of Shiny Aspies who talk about how great they are for not engaging in small talk, personally I like small talk and I think Shiny Aspies are boring, but I don't know for sure who you are thinking of when you mention extremists.)

  2. Amanda, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I'm glad you don't find this blog othering. I don't have autism, but I still dislike the clinical tone in a lot of psych writing (my specific status is irrelevant to what I'm doing here, but I'm happy to discuss it privately). I can only imagine how irritating it must be for you.

    I understand why you don't like what I said. I was referring to Shiny Aspies, mainly (what a great term!). Unfortunately a lot of more sensible people talk a lot like Shiny Aspies, both in terms of word choice and emotional tone, so it can be hard to tell sometimes when people are just pointing out that NTs need to adjust too, and when people are saying only NTs need to adjust. Since Shiny Aspies are such a minority, their attitude does waaaaaay less harm than NTs who don't get it, though.

    I get your point about why someone on the spectrum might not be as flexible even if their social skills are just as good. That makes a lot of sense.

  3. Janine Collins, a researcher with autism, wrote an excellent article called 'Socially Skilled or Socially Adaptive - there is a difference'.

    I think the word 'adaptive' is the key here. For me, being a 'good communicator' (I agree the terminology of 'social skills' is unhelpful), is about social reciprocity and flexible, adaptive thinking. In the example about Sarah, Ben and Dave, although Sarah doesnt get on with Dave, it could be that this isnt because her social reciprocity is better with Ben. We dont just turn that switch on and off. Isnt it more likely that she doesnt get on with him as well because they dont share as many common interests or that their outlook on life is different......or perhaps that his social reciprocity isnt good? Social reciprocity is about lots and lots of abilities and competencies all mashed together - one of the biggest things being the feedback one person gives to another, which encompasses non-verbal communication and motivation to interact. If one person doesnt get enough social feedback from the other, they lose the motivation to interact and the communication breaks down because its all one-sided.
    I've written about why teaching 'social skills' to people with autism isnt enough on my blog if you want to take a look: http://bit.ly/vLkMNE