mavo/Shutterstock
Source: mavo/Shutterstock

From the time we're young, we’re told that it’s important to play nicely with others. Some of us become more adept at social skills than others, however, reflecting both our own personalities and the types of experiences we have had in our family, school, and on the playground. We know it’s nicer to be around people who are nice, but what’s the right amount of niceness? New research on social skills in children suggests ways that even adults can measure and improve their niceness quotients.

The Mayo Clinic’s Stephen Whiteside and his colleagues (2016) developed a measure that would allow parents to gauge the "niceness" of their children, as indicated by their friendships and social skills. Of course, every parent believes his or her children to be perfect, or hopes they are, so the Whiteside group needed to use items on their scale that had a clear behavioral focus. They wanted the items to be easily recognized and hoped that by so doing, they’d be less subject to the self-serving distortions of doting parents.

These items, based on “observable events” (p. 1779) are worded in terms of children's activities, but they can be easily translated to the ways adults interact with each other as well. So imagine the observable events in your life and see how you rate on these items (as translated from children to adults):

  1. I am invited to other people’s homes.
  2. I invite other people over to my home.
  3. I am invited to parties and other social gatherings.
  4. Other people are generally nice to me.
  5. I am often told that I need to be nicer or more considerate.
  6. I don’t feel that I have friends to count on in a pinch.
  7. I tend to interrupt other people while they’re talking.
  8. Occasionally, I will tell someone off.
  9. I lose my temper easily when others upset me.
  10. I enjoy teasing the people I’m with, even if I don’t know them very well.
  11. If someone beats me at a game or in some type of competition, I can laugh it off.
  12. I am able to wait my turn in line behind others.
  13. I say nice things to people without being prompted.
  14. I am careful to follow the rules, such as being quiet during meetings.
  15. I ask other people questions to find out how they’re doing.

In the study on children, these 15 items were divided into five categories:

  • engaging in friendship activities (items 1 to 3);
  • being victimized by peers (item 4, reversed);
  • showing behaviors requiring concern (5-6);
  • exhibiting negative social behavior (7-10);
  • demonstrating positive social skills (11-15).

If your niceness quotient is high—approaching or reaching 60—you agree with all of the items except victimization and negative social behaviors (on which you would negatively score). In one part of the Mayo Clinic study, children having anxiety or attention disorders were compared with other children to validate the scale—and they differed, as predicted, on each component of the social skills measure. Further, when teacher ratings were factored into a validity study on the scale, there were correlations in the predicted direction.

Social competence, the authors conclude, is multidimensional. You’re not just “nice” or “not nice,” nor can you have "zero" social skills. The best way to evaluate yourself is to break your social skills into categories that have discrete connections to objectively observable behaviors. You might say you’re a super-nice person but when you consider the question about being invited places, you might realize that others may not see you the same way.

Luckily, we don’t have to be stuck with the niceness, or lack thereof, that we display at one moment in time. Look at the first two items, above. You may not be invited to other people’s houses, but do you ever invite anyone over to yours? Do you ever host a party, or do you expect others to do all the entertaining? The peer victimization question, about others being nice to you, is a translation in adult language about the way that children bully and taunt each other. If you’re not nice to others, there’s a good chance that others won’t be nice to you. If your behavior matches the items on the negative social behavior scale, it may make you someone people don’t generally want to be around, but high agreement on the positive social skills items would make you a pleasant companion, if not a friend.

Whiteside and his co-authors believe that the scale they developed for children could be used in clinical settings with the items providing clear-cut targets for intervention. As they note, the positive social behavior items “reflect pro-social actions … that are encouraged in research-based social skills interventions…,” while the negative behavior items are “discouraged in treatment through a focus on appropriate social entry, anger control, and conflict management” (p. 1785).

Turn down the negative and turn up the positive, and your social skills will rise along with your niceness quotient. Having more friends and people who like you sets you up for a richer and more fulfilling social life. The cost of giving up some of your bad habits seems like a small, and achievable, price to pay.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask questions about this post.

Reference

Whiteside, S. H., McCarthy, D. M., Sim, L. A., Biggs, B. K., Petrikin, J. E., & Mellon, M. W. (2016). Development of the Friendships and Social Skills Test (FASST): A parent report measure. Journal of Child And Family Studies, 25 (6), 1777-1788. doi:10.1007/s10826-016-0362-4

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

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