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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Whose Line Is It Anyway?

It was a Saturday morning in the summer of 1980, the front doorbell chimed, and my seven-year-old daughter Rebecca ran to see who was there. It turned out to be her best friend, Candy, who smiled and asked, “Can you come out and play?” Rebecca took a quick look at her pal, curled her lip, said “No,” and then slammed the door.

I watched this exchange and thought to myself, ‘Who slams the door in a friend’s face?’ Apparently my daughter. So, I asked her what had just taken place. She explained that her mom had told her to clean her room before she went anywhere.

“So you wanted to play, but you had to clean your room first,” I carefully paraphrased. “Yes,” she responded. “The sooner I do my chores, the sooner I can play.”

“How do you think Candy felt about your slamming the door in her face?” I asked. “She looks sad,” Rebecca explained as we peered out the window and watched Candy trudge back to her house. “I guess I hurt her feelings.”

“Can you think of something you could have said that would have been kinder?” I inquired.

Rebecca had no answer. That’s because she’s human and we humans aren’t born with much knowledge. We certainly aren’t born with the complicated, and often subtle, skills that make up social awareness and charm.

Unlike some guppies Rebecca and I had watched being born a few days earlier, humans don’t arrive with knowledge about anything. Guppies shoot out of their moms like a mini-torpedo, take a quick look around, swim to the nearest plant, hide in the foliage, and then swim in sync with the moving vegetation. They’re born with first-class hiding skills. That’s because the fish around them (including daddy and uncle guppy) eat baby guppies. To maintain the species, guppies are taught most of what they’ll need to survive—not in schools (pun intended), but in-utero. They’re born teenagers. Most of what they’ll ever know, they know at birth.

Humans, in contrast, are born with a blank slate. Infants know nothing nor are they pre-programmed to do anything. The good news: humans don’t get jerked around by instincts. (Hey, let’s swim up an Alaskan stream until we beat ourselves to death on the rocks!) The bad news: humans have to learn how to survive—skill by skill, situation by situation. Social scripts are no exception. By age seven, Rebecca hadn’t learned the door script and was having a hard time inventing one of her own.

So I continued the instruction. “What if you said, ‘I’d love to come out and play, but I have to clean my room first. When I finish I’ll come over and get you.’?”

Then I stepped outside and knocked on the door. Rebecca answered and I asked her to come out and play. When I share this story, I typically ask audiences what they think Rebecca did at this point. They respond: “She slammed the door in your face!” But they’re wrong. Rebecca politely said, “I’d love to come out and play, but I have to clean my room first. When I’m done I’ll come get you.” In less than three minutes, I had taught Rebecca a social script.

While working as a professor a few months later, I decided to test whether I could apply what I had done with a seven-year-old to grown adults by teaching them a social script. And unlike Rebecca, whom I taught openly and to her knowledge, I wanted to see if I could teach adults a social script without them even noticing.

To find out, I asked a group of graduate students to cut into movie theater lines. Our goal was to count how many people would typically say something to the line cutter. In the laid-back Mountain West where we conducted the experiment, no matter the gender, size, or demeanor of the line cutter, nobody spoke up. Better to stay mum, the subjects concluded, and avoid any potential conflicts.

Next, I asked the students to cut in front of—not a stranger—but a fellow student whom we’d secretly placed in line. The student was instructed to become upset. “Hey, quit cutting in line!” the student would brusquely say to the cutter who would then go to the end of the queue. Next, we waited a minute and cut in front of the person standing behind the student who had just chewed out the line cutter. Would experimental subjects be informed and emboldened from the demonstration they had just witnessed and now speak their minds? Since we hadn’t exhibited a very healthy script, we hypothesized that most people would remain silent. And they did. Not one person spoke harshly after watching someone else do the same.

For our third trial, we cut in front of a student who was instructed to be diplomatic. The student was to smile and say, “Excuse me. Perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been waiting in line for over fifteen minutes.” The cutter would then apologize and go to the end of the line.

Now for the big question. Similar to Rebecca learning the door script, would onlookers learn and use their new and smart sounding line-cutting script? We waited a minute, cut in front of the subject standing behind the positive role model and watched what took place—in fifty different lines. The results were startling. Over 80% of people who observed the effective interaction, spoke up. In fact, they said the exact same words they heard modeled. We did it! By using a positive role model, we taught strangers a social script that they immediately put into action. And we did it without them even knowing.

The implications of this research are obvious. Humans, despite the fact that they’re born without a scrap of useful knowledge, can observe, learn, and put into play, a whole host of skills—including social scripts. For example, you watch an employee argue for his idea in a meeting with far too much force, causing others to resist. You note that the tactic didn’t work. Then you watch someone tentatively present the same idea and ask others what they think—this approach is met with acceptance. “That nonaggressive approach worked!” you think to yourself and, just like Rebecca, you’ve learned a new social tactic.

And yet, most of us spend little time observing, learning, and teaching social scripts. We exert more effort learning French (or even Klingon) than studying human interaction. But this can change simply by watching people in tough social interactions, spotting what works and what doesn’t, and then practicing the skills yourself. Eventually, you can teach the skills to others.

Don’t rely on chance—certainly not with your children, friends, and coworkers. Expecting people to invent tactics for working through complex social issues is akin to handing a child a pencil and paper and expecting him to invent calculus. Instead, take what you’ve learned through observing others, break it into component skills, and teach these social snippets to those around you. Teaching others social skills is one of the best gifts you can give them. Plus, if you get really good at handling high-stakes conversations, you no longer have to put up with line cutters.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

10 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

  1. This was very intersting! I will keep an eye out for using this method. Now if we could only find a way to apply this to rude drivers. 🙂

    1. Eventually we’ll have an app for the rude teenage drivers. Record the license plate from your smart phone and a text message will be sent to the parent. A cross between the insurance company’s car monitor and those pesky street cameras that record a traffic violation to produce a civil violation.

  2. While I completely appreciate the point you are trying to make about social scripts, I encourage you to talk to a midwife, OB or pediatrician about all the amazing reflexes and instincts healthy babies are born with (like crawling to breast immediately after birth). They may not be guppies, but humans are most definitely not blank slates.

    1. I, too, was troubled by the “blank slate” assertion. In education we work hard to help teachers see that their students have a host of ideas, many of which they have figured out for themselves. To elaborate on this point, babies can discriminate between two and three objects at a very young age. As they grow older, they figure out a lot of mathematics from their observations of the world. While explicit teaching can help raise awareness, children construct knowledge, and as Piaget would tell you, calling them blank slates does not give them credit for the powerful thinking they are capable of.

  3. This is great! I’m using it with my faculty of middle school teachers this week. Social skills in middle school need constant attention due to the nature of pre-teens. Thanks!

  4. Interesting. We were in line at a Sonic drive-thru. This guy in a big pick-up cut directly in front of me and 10 other cars behind me. I got out of my car and politely suggested we had been waiting in line. He challenged me to meet him in the back alley. The other drivers behind me started getting out of their cars as well. Eventually the manager asked the driver to leave.

    1. I was having thoughts akin to your drive in experience. Good thing you got support from others at the scene! In the author’s experiment, the line cutter apologized and retreated. But what if the line cutter exploded in foul language and refused to leave when challenged politely? We all see cases where our fellow humans depart from social norms and are rewarded for doing so. I really have to fight against my instincts and dig deep for the courage to speak up, and find it doesn’t always have a story-book ending when I do so.

  5. I just had a conversation this morning with my wife regarding the rearing and teaching of our sons. Although our conversation was much more general, and we didn’t use the term “social script,” we did touch on this topic of teaching social skills. With this prior conversation bouncing around in my brain, reading your article really got me thinking. One of the skills that _most_ humans are born with is the innate ability to learn. I think there’s likely much broader application, but in particular I’m thinking about the ability to learn such things as social scripts. But his is not always the case: I am the father of an Asperger’s kid, and he definitely does not learn these things naturally or easily. We have had to learn ourselves to be much more conscious and direct with teaching him things like social scripts. He has worked very hard over his young life (just turned 15) to develop this learning skill, however, and does an amazingly good job it. Apart from this, however, he would be the guy in the line for the movies who observed the “good” script and when his chance came such observation would play no part whatsoever in his response–for him most things are very black and white: if he judged that the guy who cut in line was “out of line” (pun intended) then he would tell him, very directly and without much social grace. And if he judged that no response was necessary, he’d keep his mouth shut. And what he had observed as the model a few minutes before would be immaterial, because he wouldn’t _naturally_ make the connection from that situation to his own. In his b/w world, they were two distinct incidents, and so why should his response be related in any way to the first? At a minimum they involved completely two completely different sets of people. It was a different time of day. The first guy was wearing a hat and cut in from a different angle than the second, who was hatless. Etc.–you get the picture. But, again, this is how he would be if he hadn’t learned how to learn such things. I do think, now, that instead of the picture I just painted above he would be in your 80% who learned the lesson. It just wouldn’t happen naturally or subconsciously for him–he would have to consciously choose to observe, process, make the connections, and with effort expand the scope of what it might apply to beyond just the single incident, and then finally synthesize a hypothetical situation with himself in the middle of it. Sounds daunting, at least to me, but thankfully the strengths that seem to have come along with his AS more than make up for the few “weaknesses” (not really sure they are, but that’s a topic for a different conversation) that it brings, and he has a brain that can process such complex “calculations” with rather frightening speed. He just needs to be given the formula. And the right trigger points for when to use it. And the…ah, never mind–you get the point! This was an excellent and very though-provoking post, and a very good reminder that I need to be more intentional in my efforts along these lines–not everybody is the 80% who get it naturally, through absorption. Thank you. -RH

  6. But what happened in the Candy – Rebecca relationship? What advice did Rebecca receive about repairing and mending relationships?

    Does Candy remember that incident and did it impact her relationships after that?

    Was there a reward incorporated into patching up the relationship for both parties?

    Would you recommend a reward for both parties in patching up a relationship?

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