Why Savoir-Faire Is a Key to Social Success

What does it mean to be socially intelligent?

Posted Sep 12, 2020

What is behind the success of politicians, business leaders, and everyday individuals who have that special quality of being able to easily influence and persuade others? More than 40 years of research on social skills suggests that it is something that we call “savoir-faire.” That term translates to “knowing how to be.”

Savoir-faire involves a cluster of social skills that includes being verbally expressive (i.e., a fluent speaker), the ability to engage others and hold their attention, and skill in playing social roles, which helps an individual “fit in” with all kinds of people and groups in a variety of social settings. We measure savoir-faire using two subscales of the Social Skills Inventory.

Savoir-faire Predicts Social Success

Our research shows a savoir-faire advantage. For example, persons possessing savoir-faire are rated as more “hirable” in mock hiring interviews, and they are more likely to emerge as leaders in small, unacquainted groups (such as the foreperson of a jury).

In detailed studies of college students, young adults possessing savoir-faire made more positive first impressions on other students, and were better liked. Moreover, they were rated as being enthusiastic and able to express their ideas well.

The students in the study then engaged in a cooperative building task and a competitive game. Those students with savoir-faire were seen as individuals who took charge and looked comfortable in the cooperative task. In the competitive game, students with savoir-faire were rated by their opponent as confident in their ability, but appropriately playful and humorous – the kinds of behaviors that are associated with good sportsmanship. Even in competitive situations, the students with savoir-faire were evaluated more positively than those who lacked this special social skill.

In a recent publication, we explored the relationship of savoir-faire to more traditional personality characteristics in order to better understand it. As might be expected, savoir-faire was related to becoming more successfully engaged or involved in social interactions. It is also associated with expressing more positive affect. Finally, the possession of the social skills associated with savoir-faire increases self-confidence.

It is clear that savoir-faire represents a core construct of social intelligence, and it is distinct from verbal intelligence (IQ). It also seems different than emotional intelligence (EQ). One might look at multiple intelligences broadly and say that the best of all possibilities is to possess IQ, EQ, and social intelligence (SQ).

Most recently, we have explored savoir-faire and leadership in depth and find that of all the individual difference measures we have correlated with both emergence into leadership positions and ratings of leader effectiveness, savoir-faire is the best predictor.

How does one acquire savoir-faire?

Savoir-faire, like all forms of social intelligence, is developed through interacting with many different types of people in different situations. Joining a speaking group helps build public speaking, which is a key, job-related component of savoir-faire. Taking an improvisation course (available in most cities) can also help to improve verbal skills. Taking on a variety of roles in the community, and working on conversational skills also helps. Unfortunately, there is no "school" for savoir-faire, but we know that it can be developed through motivation and hard work.


            Riggio, R.E.  (1986).  Assessment of basic social skills.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 649-660.

            Riggio, R.E., & Throckmorton, B.*  (1988).  The relative effects of verbal and nonverbal behavior, appearance, and social skills on evaluations made in hiring interviews.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18, 331-348.

Guerin, D.W., Oliver, P.H., Gottfried, A.W., Gottfried, A.E., Reichard, R.J., & Riggio, R.E.  (2011).  Childhood and adolescent antecedents of social skills and leadership potential in adulthood: Temperamental approach/withdrawal and extraversion.  The Leadership Quarterly, 22(3), 482-494.

            Riggio, R.E., Eaton, L.G., & Funder, D.C. (2020). Skill in social situations: The essence of savoir-faire. In A. Kostic & R.J. Sternberg (Eds.), Social intelligence and nonverbal communication. (pps. 333-357). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan