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7 Principles for Handling Life’s Social Dilemmas

Social Q’s: Great Advice Offered with Wisdom and Wit

People often accuse psychologists of choosing their profession because they're basically nosy. But, let's be honest, psychologist or not, who doesn't enjoy a little peek into someone else's messy social closet? If not, why would newspaper social advice columns be so popular? Whether it's Dear Abby or her twin sister Ann Landers, we all seem to relish a snoop or two into someone else's social problems.

Sometimes we want more than just a chuckle over a snappy comeback by an advice columnist. We want guidance that will help us figure out how to handle our own social dilemmas. "How can I," you wonder, "generalize from an admonition given Miss Manners to the problems I encounter in my own complicated life?" Enter New York Times columnist Philip Galanes, author of the weekly "Social Q's" a column that appears in the Sunday Styles section. Galanes picks the 3 or 4 choicest questions sent to him by readers to answer in his own inimitable fashion. Apart from the questions themselves, which range from common neighborly nuisances to dicey in-law problems, the answers both amuse and hit the nail right on the head. Galanes's gift for mixing common sense with humor and his own personal reflections makes each column an absolute delight to read, re-read, and even store in your online cache.

Now this remarkable advice, along with its underlying principles, is available in book form called, fittingly enough "Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries, and Quagmires of Today." The questions, most of which are new to the book, are sensibly pulled together into well-thought out categories: problems on public transportation, faux pas in beauty and hygiene, boss and co-worker annoyances, nasty neighbors, and, of course, freakish family problems.

The questions that Galanes includes are fascinating as well from a psychological point of view. It's amazing how many odd social problems can confront the seemingly average adult. Got a neighbor peering into your window to talk to your cat? Are ex-spouses friending, or de-friending, you on Facebook? How about a co-worker who has terrible bad breath? What if that co-worker is your boss? What if you hit "reply all" to an email that denigrates a fellow office worker or family member? When should you intervene to help a stranger—or worse, correct that stranger for some piece of bad behavior? Some of these scenarios are funny because they seem so preposterous but others make you chortle because you recognize them from your own life.

The advice is wise and sometimes sassy. What's more, Galanes provides readers with metrics that can be generalized beyond these specific questions. Though not officially trained in the field (he's a lawyer by profession), Galanes infuses his advice with plenty of psychology—from behaviorism to psychoanalysis and a fair amount of social psychology thrown in to boot.

Here are the seven principles I've gleaned from the book, and the psychology which I found behind them:

1. "Stick to the Frame." A term used in psychotherapy, the "frame" refers to the expectations that people have about what's appropriate and expected from the therapist According to the theory of the frame, therapists should follow certain conventions. Clients feel safer when the therapist makes this structure clear and doesn't deviate from it. Your appointment is at 4 each Wednesday, and that's that. I'll be there for you and you'll be there to see me. Moreover, a therapist who provides free therapy is, according to this school of thought, violating the frame because people expect to pay (even if on a sliding scale) for their treatment. Similarly, Galanes often emphasizes (though not explicitly as such) the notion that to be beneficial, social relationships should adhere to predictable, and preferably, mutually respectable norms. For example, if a co-worker gives you a ride to and from work every day, you owe that co-worker a contribution for the price of gas. If you're the driver, you should feel entitled to request this without feeling guilty. In fact, based on the frame notion, by doing so you actually make the potential free-loader feel better too. Bosses shouldn't expect employees to provide personal advice (especially after they've been fired). This violates the frame of boss-employee relationships, which are supposed to be work-based. Any office relationships should remain in the bounds of that frame.

2. Weigh risks against benefits. Decision-making involves a set of cognitive processes based on cost-benefit analyses. Unfortunately, people aren't always that good at making decisions, so having a set of rubrics to make those decisions is very helpful. For example, do you tell your boss that he has bad breath or that you resent your friend's allowing her cat to walk all over the dinner table? Galanes provides a simple 3-point checklist to help you decide whether to provide unrequested advice about such habits that may be unhealthy if not unseemly. When it comes to giving people advice about their appearance (e.g. a brunette who wants to go blonde), a 2-dimensional framework can help you determine the line of demarcation between being offensive and being kind in these potentially delicate situations.

3. Go below the surface. We often react to other people not by how they really are but by how they confirm or disconfirm our expectations. For example, when you see a person inappropriately dressed (however defined), Galanes points out that what bothers you "is the gap between our idea of people and their apparent image of themselves, which we glean from what they're wearing... we like to keep people in tiny boxes... because it confirms our understanding of the world and our place in it." The older woman at the grocery store wearing leggings that show her underwear bothers us not for any logical reason about her, but for an illogical reason about our own expectations (and therefore you shouldn't say anything to her). Similarly, when it comes to money and relationships, money generally stands for more than cash. Money can equal esteem, aggression, or- in rarer instances- kindness.

4. Avoid the fundamental attribution error. We see the flaws in others that we disregard in ourselves, or as Galanes puts it: "What's fashionable is what I'm wearing. What's unfashionable is what she has on." To solve this problem, he's devised a clever Tic-Tac-Toe (complete with shoes and purses) to serve as your guide to avoiding this attribution error. Generalizing beyond these scenarios, it seems that many of the dilemmas represented in reader questions reflect a failure to see the world from another person's eyes. You may think it's ok to owe money to a good friend and then "forget" to return it, but if your friend did the same to you, chances are good that you'd be less than forgiving about the situation. When you've got a "Big Day" (e.g. a wedding) to plan, it's hard to remember that not everyone will find it as enthralling as you do. Instead, you should try to recognize that they may not want to spend as much time, effort, and money as you think they ought to.

5. Take a chill pill. What upsets us the most about situations involving, for example, public transportation is that we lack control over what happens to us. As Galanes points out, the next time you're frustrated by travel woes, ask yourself "Would this upset me if it weren't 200 degrees in here or we weren't 23 hours late?" Lack of control can lead us to become far more stressed than the situation warrants; once you recognize this you'll find it easier to calm down. Similarly, when someone upsets you and that person is a stranger, "walk on by." Ignore people whose rudeness to you has no future bearing on your life (unless you could learn from the experiences, as shown in #7, below). When it comes to a desire to send an angry email, practice the "O.M.G." rule, the "M" of which means "make sure." Pushing send to the wrong recipient or replying in the heat of the moment can only lead to trouble. When bad feelings brew beneath, or overtly on, the surface of family relationships, try very, very hard to keep quiet and do all you can to resist family feuds. Avoid triangulation traps in which you play one family member off against another, particularly when those family members are in-laws. The same applies to breakups- avoid ill-conceived, or what he calls "Scarlett O'Hara" types of impulsive endings to long-term relationships.

6. See what's in front of you. Reproducing the famous face-vase Gestalt image, Galanes notes that we can't always see what's in front of us. We may see the faces but not the vase, or vice versa, unless we really try hard to switch our perspective. The principle of selective blindness, for example, leads parents to "not see" the misbehavior of their kids. Why is this? As he notes, "maybe (as I suspect), we turn our kids into little ego extensions of ourselves, and just can't bear the criticism." Freud himself couldn't have said it any better though in some ways, this borders on the fundamental attribution error. Other people's kids bother us more than we admit ours bother others.

7. Learn from experience. Humans, like lab animals, can modify their behavior to avoid preventable mistakes when similar situations arise. You can "use that excellent head of yours" and, when in doubt, avoid your first impulse in most situations until you've thought through the consequences. In other words, you don't have to relegate yourself to a life of social gaffes, awkward moments, and unintentional insults of your friends and family. You can change, and luckily even small adjustments can make a huge difference in the success of your social relationships.

It's difficult to do justice to this gem of a social advice book in this brief column, but I hope that by summarizing the essence of its psychological insights, you'll be intrigued enough to learn more on your own. The social world is increasingly difficult to navigate, with its electronic minefields, stressful work situations, and complex family dynamics. These seven principles should help you navigate yours a great deal more effectively.

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 further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012

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