Awkward or Confident: Developing Social Intelligence

by Don McMinn

Are you clueless or savvy when you relate to others? You can develop great relationships with others if you learn to develop high social intelligence.

What Does Social Intelligence Look Like?

  • Decorum – propriety and good taste in conduct or appearance
  • Etiquette – the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life
  • Manners – social conduct or rules of conduct as shown in the prevalent customs
  • Politeness – marked by an appearance of consideration, tact, deference, or courtesy

What Does Social Ignorance Look Like?

  • Crudeness
  • Clueless
  • Inappropriate
  • Awkward


All human interaction takes place in a context (setting, environment) so to be socially intelligent one must accurately perceive and properly manage all the elements that influence a social context.


1. Cultural issues

Every social setting has its own, unique culture that includes issues like: values, beliefs, norms of behavior, codes of conduct, and social rules. Social intelligence requires that you understand these cultural nuances and adjust to them. For instance, cultural subtleties become particularly important as we enter into different geographical areas. The culture of the deep South is different than the North-east. India is different than France.

2. The history of a group and its present and future issues.

When entering into a social setting, it’s important to be aware of past (both distant and recent), present, and future issues because they will invariably affect the relational interaction.

Prior to a social engagement, try to discover this information (ask others, search the internet) and/or, at the beginning of the engagement, ask about these issues.

3. Physical elements, including: space, ambiance and atmosphere, audio issues, temperature and air quality, lighting, sight lines, comfort level.

4. People – who’s in the room, what is their relationship with each other, what are the lines of authority (both official and de facto). 

5. The purpose of the gathering

            It’s important to understand the purpose of each social gathering—Why are we meeting? What do we want to accomplish?—and then maintain that focus and accomplish the purpose.

6. Emotional elements

Whenever two or more people meet together, emotions are present. Ignore these emotions at your own peril. This is where emotional intelligence and social intelligence overlap.

7. Political Aspects

If you work for an organization or participate in any kind of organized human activity, you’ve involved yourself in its politics. Declaring yourself out of the game doesn’t get you out of the game. You might as well engage the opportunities for acquiring influence with others, rather than passively accept the fate others decide for you.”[i]

8. Expectations

Unless the social setting is totally each person brings into a social setting, certain expectations about what can, should, or will happen. This sense of anticipation can be positive (wonderful things will happen) or negative (pending gloom and doom). Being aware of these expectations is important.

9. How various “agenda items” affect each other

When people gather together and multiple things transpire, it’s important to anticipate how those different elements will affect each other. It’s also advantageous to think through the optimum order in which these elements should be addressed.


Know what part you, as an individual, can and should play in a particular environment.

The question to ask here is, “How do I fit into this social setting; what role should I play?” For instance, though you may function as the leader at your office, when you take your son on a Boy Scout camping trip, you will probably be just one of the dads – a  leader in one setting, a follower in another.


Developing Social Intelligence

·       Learn how to leave your own “world” and how to enter into another person’s (or group’s) “world.”

·       Prefer others

·       Strive to have a nourishing influence on social settings, not a toxic one

·        Be a student of social settings. Observe and analyze.

·        Develop your ability to perceive.

·       Learn to read clues- verbal and non-verbal.


People With Good Social Intelligence Are

·       Connecting with and influencing people

·       Managing interpersonal experiences

·       Making personal, subtle adjustments to better fit into a social setting.

·       Understanding “presence” – The way a person affects individuals or groups of people through physical appearance, mood, demeanor, body language and how he occupies space in a room.


How can we be more socially intelligent in any particular setting?

Before entering into an environment, do your homework. Find out as much as you can about the environment (and environment includes people) As soon as you enter into an environment, have your “social radar” turned on.  Constantly monitor the changing dynamics of the social encounter and be willing to adjust accordingly or to maintain focus.


Social intelligence requires having the wisdom and grace to accommodate individual differences within the context of the whole!



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