Social Acceptance: Are You a Threat?

Transactional empathy as a tool of social intelligence

Posted Feb 28, 2014

Not only do we want to be loved, we need to be loved. This aspect of the human condition is a vestige of our primal heritage, hardwired into our brains. Interestingly, because we also harbor a cognitive bias that prompts us to interpret experience in a negative light, more often than we likely realize, our experience of social rejection may actually be a case of misguided perception.

In addition to our need to be loved—or what might more accurately be described as our need to be included—is the aspect of our primal heritage that prompts us to view things from a negative viewpoint. This tendency is a consequence of our being wired to assess potential threats in the environment; it’s a survival mechanism. When our need to be included bumps up against our tendency to see the negative, it can wreak havoc on our self-perception and, more so, our sense of self-worth.

By way of example, let’s say you attend a dinner party where you are introduced to some new people. Over the course of the evening you notice that one person in particular, while chatty with the others at the table, ignores you or engages you in a very cursory fashion. What is your first thought? For most of us, it’s “This person doesn’t like me.”

The person in question has, quite literally, pulled your strings, those hard wires that say, “I must be included in the tribe, so I don’t get left in the forest to die.” Put that through the filter of negative thinking informed by threat assessment and what you get is, “I am undesirable as a pack-mate.” Slough off the instinctive nature, enter the social animal and, voila, what we experience is a profound sense of social rejection that says, “I am unlovable, undesirable, and somehow less than.”

Now, if we were to release our ego-centric perspective long enough to walk around to the other side of this tableau, seeing it from the other person’s viewpoint, what do you think we’d find? Quite likely it would be not that the person doesn’t like us, but, more, he or she sees us as a threat. Ah-ha! The plot thins!

What this little story illustrates is that, very often, what we perceive as rejection is the flip side of the very mechanism that is causing us to interpret an interaction as rejection. Our inability to see things from another person’s viewpoint—a feature of emotional intelligence—and ingrained tendency to see the negative—most often about ourselves—leads us right down the garden path.  There we fail to see the salience of our own social power and reject the notion that we may pose a threat—or even strike fear—into another individual simply by being in the room, amplifying our own social insecurity. A tender trap, if ever there were one.

There are some people in the world who are just not going to like us, and there are others who would keep us at a distance because, while we are busy wallowing in the negative self-talk that is saying we are smaller, dumber, weaker and slower, they are reacting to us as bigger, smarter, stronger and faster. Our failure to recognize this is a fascinating social paradox that profoundly interferes with genuinely transactional relationships.

In service of fostering social intelligence, then, we might strive to develop a kind of transactional empathy. Empathy is that aspect of integral emotional intelligence where we shift from an ego-centric world view (I, Me, Mine) to an ethno-centric worldview (Us). This allows us to hold space for another person’s perspective.

Transactional empathy would point toward being able to hold space for the experience of that person’s perspective, not only giving us a deeper understanding of the other person, but providing us with a more dimensional interpretation of our own experience. In the case of our example, that would serve us insofar as being better able to interpret social cues, deflecting our misguided perceptions, and providing us with a more realistic perspective on our experience.

© 2014 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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