Your bowling league gathers on Wednesday nights, your golfing buddies on Saturday mornings. You're the only member belonging to both groups and, thinking they'd get along fabulously, you invite them all to a dinner party. What happens?

Within minutes of meeting, the two groups drift off to opposite corners of the room, bowlers to the bean dip and golfers to the guacamole. When dinner is served, each group sits at separate tables.

Cliques may seem snobbish, but they are really just normal, evolutionary social responses to fear.

Imagine bowlers and golfers meeting in the forest primeval. Who approaches whom? Make nice to the long-reaching club-wielders or to the strong-armed pin-toters? Go ahead. You first. The smart question to ask, the one constantly lurking in the minds of all social animals, tends to be a real show stopper: "What if they don't like me?"

Remove the party from the bush, take away all outward signs of physical threat, and the question still remains a powerful obstacle to social mingling.

But the obstacle can be overcome.

When dolphins who don't know each other well find themselves in close proximity, their social radars go on high alert too, so animal trainers capitalize on dolphin dinner time to iron out the social awkwardness that parallels human cliquishness.

Trainers do this through a series of approximations, or small, gradual movements toward the ultimate goal of comfortable social mixing. Their primary training tool? You guessed it—the food bucket.

Those eye-catching line-ups during show time at oceanariums don't just happen. Both trainers and dolphins have to work to achieve them.

Want a fish? Come and get it. The catch is dolphin dinner plates get moved closer and closer together, so inner warnings of stranger danger have to give way to a willingness to get cozy.

Over time, dolphins can learn not only to trust each other at close range, but also to consistently line up for their fish in a particular order. Of course, some learn faster than others, and it's not uncommon for a quick-learning dolphin to help out a befuddled neighbor by escorting him on a quick swim to the correct place in the line-up while the new skill is still in the learning stages.

Humans use similar social learning cues in the form of dinner plate name tags at corporate events or weddings when the need to make small talk can be, although initially awkward, crucial to the success of the event.

No need, of course, for such formalities at a casual dinner party—but it can't hurt to strategically place the bowling league's bean dip next to the golf club's guacamole.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

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