There are just some things you don’t do in social situations:
- Intentionally, voluntarily pick your nose or pass gas in any place where you are not alone. Yes, bodily functions are natural. No, setting them free is not. Farts are not endangered species.
- Ask a woman if she’s pregnant, even if she looks it. Unless she says, “Baby” and points to her belly, or has a t-shirt that says, “Yes I’m pregnant, feel free to ask,” don’t.
- Taste food from a stranger’s plate in a restaurant – while he’s eating it (you know, because it looks delicious, but you’re not sure whether you want to spend $35 to order it).
- Ask for a woman’s (or a man’s) phone number at a funeral…of his or her own family member.
It’s fair to say that most of these are unspoken yet obvious rules, but there are certain social faux pas that you may be committing unwittingly. Here’s what we learned from our social skills research study:
Misstep 1: Giving your opinion out like mints
Stat: 7% of people admit that their friends or family members get upset with them for offering unsolicited advice.
The right step: Everyone has an opinion that they think everyone else wants to hear, or that they think is only truth. However – unless a person expressly asks for your input on how they live their life, then basic etiquette dictates that you keep your opinion to yourself. I know you mean well and want to help, but sometimes the best thing you can do is not to do (or say) anything. Let friends, family members and random strangers figure things out for themselves.
Misstep 2: Body language gone wrong
- 13% of people violate personal space by standing too close to others during conversations.
- 14% gesture too much, while 11% don’t gesture at all.
- 23% misemploy eye contact by staring endlessly without turning away; 27% don’t make enough eye contact.
The right step:
- Pay attention to proximity. The physical distance that separates you from the person you are speaking to is important. If you’re too far away or standing behind something, you are sending the message that you are inaccessible and unapproachable. Standing too close, however, might make the person uncomfortable, particularly if you are not on intimate terms. In North America, the ideal distance apart when speaking to others is three feet.
- Watch those hand gestures. For Italians (like me), speaking with your body is an art. Even if I wore noise-cancelling headphones, I would still be able to get the gist of what was being said through body language alone. But like alcohol and fast food, moderation is everything. Too much gesturing can be distracting (it’s all fun and games until you poke someone’s eye out). Too little gesturing, however, might make you look stiff, robotic, or unengaged.
- Watch your eyes. Eye contact is always an iffy thing. I would rather not stare at anyone, no matter where I am. In general, however, eye contact is often considered a sign of confidence, assertiveness, and respect. But staring without looking away (and without blinking) is kind of creepy, while making little eye contact will give people the impression that you’re not listening (or you’re hiding something).
Misstep 3: Failing to recognize social cues
(BBC Sherlock, “Hound of the Baskervilles”)
- 10% of people don’t take context into consideration when choosing a topic of conversation (e.g. bringing up a politically loaded subject that could offend a member of the group).
- 12% don’t adjust their style of speech to fit the person they are speaking to.
The right step:
- Know your audience. It’s an old axiom: Don’t talk politics or religion, unless you’re participating in a professional debate or friendly philosophical discussion. Remember, what you consider an innocent or interesting subject matter might be offensive or uncomfortable to other people. Try to stick to neutral topics as much as possible.
- Explain things using the listener’s frame of reference. Don’t assume a person knows everything about a topic, particularly if you are discussing an area of your expertise. Avoid jargon (like my favorite Freudisms: “Your passive aggressive ego is just a function of your unresolved Oedipal issues, coupled with over-use of unhealthy defensive mechanisms.”) and acronyms that the listener may not know (“According to the DSM-5, the best way to deal with OCD is with CBT.”). So basically, use examples that people can understand.
- Mirror the other person’s style. Within reason, try to use similar facial expressions, posture, and choice of words. This will put the person you are speaking to at ease, and will minimize the differences between you. So, for example, if you are talking to someone who seems to have a more limited vocabulary (like a child), adjust your own speech accordingly.
Stay tuned for Part 2!