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.