Michael Argyle traced his interest in social psychology, a field he pioneered, back to his concern for a school friend whose shyness had made him miserable. When Argyle started his research in the Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge in 1950, it was full of people studying motor skills, and he began to wonder if social skills might be similar to motor skills in that they both depended on feedback, whether it be interacting with a machine or listening to and looking at other people. It occurred to him that social skills might be taught and become second nature, like striking a golf ball or shifting gears on a car.

Argyle began researching the unspoken rules of human interaction, what he called “non-verbal communication”. His Social Skills Research Group at the Institute of Experimental Psychology at Oxford, formed in 1963, devised experiments to examine the minutiae of eye movements and head nods, the way that two people in conversation synchronized their non-verbal cues in a sort of gestural waltz. In one study, Argyle and his team put hostile, friendly and neutral verbal messages in different combinations with hostile, friendly and neutral non-verbal ways of delivering them, to see what effect they had on the listener. They arrived at an arresting statistic: non-verbal communication was 12-and-a-half times more powerful than language in conveying meaning.

Argyle came to believe that social skills were learnable and teachable. His approach to social psychology suggested that people’s personalities were not crystallized in childhood or adolescence, but capable of change. His bestselling book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour (1967), argued that many mental problems were due not to a psychopathology beginning in early childhood, as Freudians thought, but to a lack of social skills.

In 1968 Argyle set up a social skills training programme at the Littlemore Psychiatric Hospital near Oxford, which had pioneered the use of small group meetings with patients instead of the traditional methods of straitjacketed restraint and confinement in padded cells. Argyle wanted to carry on this enlightened tradition. He believed that a common trait in mental patients was their inability to make friends, due to their failure to take any interest in people or see their point of view, and their consequent “very low level of rewardingness to others”.

He set these patients exercises to improve their postures, enliven their expressions and animate their gestures. They learned to “moodmatch” the voice tone, expression and body language of their conversational partner. If their voices were monotonous, a common failing among the shy or depressed, they were taught to vary pitch. The hardest thing these patients had to do was to watch videos of themselves and be shown how sullen, bored or hostile they looked to others. They then had to take apart these instinctive gestures and expressions and reassemble them more agreeably, like out-of-form golfers reconstructing their swings.  

Argyle’s methods caught on and were rolled out into many areas of life. Schizophrenics were taught social skills in order to overcome their alienating sense of otherness. Violent prisoners were shown how to deal politely with situations that might lead to conflict. Alongside these people that Argyle named the “socially inadequate”, there were line managers, doctors, teachers, service workers—anyone whose job involved dealing with people or the public—who could be schooled in social skills as well.

Argyle became a cheerleader for Scottish country dancing, which he did every Wednesday for years, and he recommended it as a universal cure for shyness. Just as Robert Burns took up Scottish dancing to “give my manners a brush”, Argyle felt that its careful tracing of progressive patterns to a set choreography could teach people social skills. It offered a mini-tutorial in the importance of taking polite turns and coordinating touch and gaze, rather as babies enjoyed matching sequences of smiles and glances with their mothers.

Argyle possessed the evangelism of the missionary, not the experience of a fellow sufferer. An outgoing personality with a barking laugh, who at parties wore a revolving bow tie, he came to feel that extroverts were happier because they expected to get on with people, and so they did. “The happy people are a lot less popular than they think they are,” he said. “The depressives are a lot less unpopular. But on the whole, the depressives are generally nearer the truth.” He saw no rational reason for people to be shy, and was puzzled by the reluctance of intelligent people to learn the social skills that would make them happier. When he ran the first conference on non-verbal communication in Oxford in 1967, he was baffled by “the amazingly inept and socially incompetent behaviour of some of the world’s greatest experts on social behaviour. No satisfactory explanation was found for this despite much discussion.”

Can social skills really be taught? As a resiliently shy person I would have to say: up to a point. Argyle’s work has undoubtedly helped many “socially inadequate” people to relate to others better. But the human personality is much stranger and more unbiddable than motor skills. Learning social skills is an essential part of being human. But it is not as simple as learning how to swing a golf ball.

About the Author

Joe Moran, Ph.D.

Joe Moran, Ph.D., is a professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, UK, and author of Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness (Yale UP 2017).

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