Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Cultivating Social Intelligence

Developing "people smarts"

I am currently reading a book by philosopher Nancy Snow, Virtue as Social Intelligence. This small volume is packed with insight, and nicely combines philosophical argument with psychological data. As I read through one of the chapters today I was struck by a few points Snow offers related to developing social intelligence.

First, however, we need to consider what social intelligence is. In general, social intelligence can be defined as the knowledge, cognitive abilities, and affections (e.g. empathy) which enable us to successfully navigate the social world (p. 63). Or, more colloquially, social intelligence is "people smarts." Social intelligence enables us to live well in the social domain. The socially intelligent individual is able to pick up on certain social cues, is self-aware, and has appropriate cognitive and emotional capacities for interacting with others. She has social expertise. Social intelligence is also connected to life tasks such as parenting, romantic relationships, and work. It is crucial that we develop social intelligence if we want to flourish and achieve many important life goals related to these tasks.

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How can we cultivate social intelligence? Snow offers some examples of practical steps that we can take (p. 80).

First, we can develop an attentiveness to other people. When one is self-absorbed and oblivious to others, it will not be possible to participate fully in social life. Cultivating this sort of attentiveness is an essential first step for becoming socially intelligent.

Second, we can learn how to interpret the cues we receive from other people. To understand the flow of interpersonal dynamics and be in sync with others in social settings, we need to have and use the ability to interpret facial expressions, language, and relevant cultural factors. As Snow points out, if I wish to get along with my neighbors who have recently emigrated from another nation, I should try to learn a bit about their culture so as to avoid inadvertently offending them. The socially intelligent person can also read others, and ascertain when such states as confusion, anger, or joy are present.

Third, we can monitor our own reactions in social situations. Someone who has a tendency to blurt out whatever comes to mind can end up in trouble during a sensitive conversation at home or work. The socially intelligent person will tend to give more measured responses in such situations, and this will in turn help these interactions to go more smoothly than they otherwise would.

Some of us are socially intelligent in certain domains, but not others. Perhaps we need to cultivate more empathy in our interactions with co-workers. Or perhaps we need to be more empathetic with a spouse or child. I tend to be too empathetic as a teacher, and have to be intentional about being tougher on my students when this is required to help them develop their potential and fulfill their academic responsiblities. Whatever our individual strengths and weaknesses regarding social intelligence, intentionally cultivating it will help our lives, and the lives of those around us, go better.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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