What Is Social Intelligence ?

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We all know that humans are social animals and the basis of our social being is ‘interpersonal communication’. One look at our evolution and it becomes absolutely clear that we are wired to connect, because there is no other way we would have survived all that we did. But are we connecting anymore? Look around and you would find that if not destroyed, the very basis of our social being is surely under serious threat.

At homes, fathers are busy staring at their smart-phones, mothers are busy watching television, kids are busy with their videogames and teenagers are tuned into a song in the I-pod. Similarly, at workplace, bosses are busy looking at laptops and employees are either logged into their company’s intranets or some social networking sites. Even the education hasn’t remained unaffected. Teachers are looking at their PowerPoint Presentations rather than at students and students are also preferring online videos to learn from.The scene in business is no different either. Customers are choosing e-commerce websites over a real shopping experience and Customer Care Executives are busy checking out customer records in CRM software rather than relating to the very same persons standing in front of them.

Yes! We are looking less at people, listening to them less, being less mentally-present in conversations and are paying lesser attention to their reactions. Those speaking silences and subtle interactions of the past are today struggling in the impulsive hands of ‘Poke, Ping & Post’. And with decreasing attention span and declining face-to-face contact, people are finding it hard to relate to each other, connect with each other and hold on to relationships.That’s what makes social intelligence such an important virtue to develop. We, at Socialigence, define Social Intelligence as ‘Observing nonverbal behavior and understanding emotions for greater interpersonal effectiveness and self-management’. Yes! If we develop renewed interest and caliber to pay attention to people and to what they are conveying without saying it, then this simple change has a potential to enrich our lives as social beings to a great extent.

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Have you ever wondered why most people find the company of animals or kids so pleasant and relaxing? Well! It is because, with them, ‘What you see is what you get’. On the other hand, every other interaction in civilized world, with socially-groomed grown-ups, is so multilayered. You have to constantly play the guessing-game for intents and motives – “Does he really mean what he says”? “Does she really feel how she emotes”? “Does he really believe in how he acts”? …

Yes! Genuineness became the biggest victim of civilization. As humans started living in groups, they learnt the art of diplomacy – the ability to ‘not displease anyone’ and still derive the most desired outcome from a situation. But then, what began as an effective tool for dealing with the complex system of community-living also took an alternate form of a slightly distorted concept – manipulation.

Arrival of language only complicated the matters further. The social apparatus was already teaching humans to regulate their emotions and expressions. And then words came and added to this whole scheme an entirely new dimension. Well! The most interesting thing about words is that they are notional in nature. They need not be rooted in sincere settings of our animal-reality. Thus they could also be used at will for not only hiding a socially-inapt expression but also for making up such representations that suit one’s ulterior motives.

So, while humans were on their way to become the master-manipulators of the animal-world, this whole training for becoming social-beings was further widening the gap between the deliberate ‘thoughts’ and the instinctive ‘emotions’.

You heard it right. Beneath our intelligent educated selves, the real shapers of our lives – day in day out –are our emotions. They call the shots in most of the situations. That’s why most of the people react on the basis of their emotions and even those who don’t, find emotions playing an intervening part in their choices. Yes! These instinctive emotions reveal our real selves.

And, the fact is that “Words express thoughts…and…Body expresses emotions”. So, it is important to observe nonverbal behavior as that is what helps you develop an understanding into someone’s emotional realities.

So, if you can get a clue of someone’s emotional state through observing his nonverbal behavior then you can have a better prediction of the choices he can make and thus can be more prepared with the most apt response on your part. For instance, if you can spot early stage of anger in someone then you may do something to offset a potentially unfavorable outcome for yourself. On the other hand, if you can read discomfort of someone who is not expressing it then you may extend a helping hand.

Thus, be it personal, social or professional domain, observing nonverbal behavior can have a far-reaching impact.

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Nonverbal behavior, as the name suggests, is about the behavior other than that related to words. This includes many constituents and the academic literature has given a particular name to the study of each of them. Well! If we start talking in purely technical terms then it may end up being a real technical treatise on the subject.

Take a sample, the study of gestures, postures and expressions is called ‘Kinesics’, study of voice is called ‘Vocalics’ or ‘Paralanguage’, study of touch is called ‘Haptics’, study of eye-contact and movement is called ‘Oculesics’, study of use of space in communication is called ‘Proxemics’, study of use of personal artifacts is called ‘Objectics’, and study of use of time in communication is called ‘Chronemics’.

Well! You must have been taken aback by all these technical terms coming at you, and that too right at the outset. But don’t worry. We will uphold our promise to simplify. And for these reasons, we will talk mainly in terms of three common popular terms – postures, gestures and expressions.

You must have surely come across these terms and might have used them interchangeably. So, before we move further, let’s clarify these three important terms which would keep coming back all the time in the following videos.

Posture deals more with a person’s stance – manner of standing or sitting. It is more about overall balance and alignment of the body. It is more ‘macro’ and involves a lot of ‘spine’ of the body – the way people hold their head and shoulders. For instance, posture can be upright, slumped, slouched, tensed, relaxed, leaning, withdrawing etc.

Gestures are bodily movements that involve actions and animation of smaller body-parts or motion of the larger parts of the body for smaller durations. They are more ‘micro’ and mainly involve arms, hands, fingers, feet etc. We make gestures all the time like pointing finger, shrugging, withdrawing arm, extending a hand, waving, stroking chin etc.

Expressions are mainly the movements of facial muscles. They are subtle, short-lived and changing. Human face is capable of making over 10,000 expressions and around 3,000 of them are relevant to emotions and their expression. We all are aware of most of these expressions like smiling happy-face, long sad-face, clenched angry-face etc.

All postures, gestures and expressions can be voluntary or involuntary. And a lot of ‘observing of nonverbal behavior’ is about meticulous spotting of the involuntary ones and careful scrutiny of the voluntary ones for the involuntary ones beneath them.

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The answer lies in the design of our brain. Don’t be surprised! The fact is that everything we do is governed by brain. That’s where all our emotions, thoughts and actions emerge. The only difference is each of them mostly emerges from a different level of the brain.

Well! You might ask “Different level? Isn’t each one of us supposed to have only ‘one’ brain?” Well! Let me take a risk of giving a simplistic answer – ‘No’. We actually have three brains, built over and around one another, in the course of evolution, during millions of years.

Let’s invest next few minutes in understanding this concept. Remember! It is very important to do so for developing an insight into nonverbal behavior.

Well! Evolutionists, led by Charles Darwin, believe that species of humans has evolved from its preceding life-forms, as a gradual upgrade that happened over a period of millions of years. Thus, human brain also wasn’t designed from scratch, but has got developed in stages, with each earlier stage retained in the lower levels. So, human brain isn’t really an entity. Rather it is a collection of modules, each with different functions.

This concept is at the heart of one of the most important models in neuroscience called ‘Triune Brain’. It was formulated in 1960s by an American neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean! While many neuroscientists criticize it for its oversimplified organizing theme, it has been famous for its excellent explanatory value. So, here they are:

Nonverbal behavior is more trustworthy than words

Brain one is called Reptilian brain. It is the bottommost, at the centre, just above our spinal cord! This is a part whose structure is similar to the brains of birds and reptiles. It is attributed to the basic, housekeeping & survival functions – breathing, hunger, thirst, temperature control, fight-or-flight fear responses, defending territory, keeping oneself safe etc. Due to its location, it is also called Brainstem.

Brain two is called Mammalian brain. This structure is wrapped around brain one and its structure is similar to the brains of older mammals like dogs, cats, horses, and even rats. Think about the difference between a rat and a lizard and you’ll recognize what capacities this structure adds. Well! Mammals have “feelings” like ours. Thus, this brain supports functions related to emotions, behavior, motivation, memory etc. Due to its shape, it is also called limbic system.

Brain three is called Primate brain. This structure is wrapped around brain two and its structure is conceptually similar to the brains of chimps etc. yet far more evolved than theirs. With this brain, primates can do things that horses and cows cannot, like complex social interactions, advance planning, decision making, perceiving and speaking language. Due to its shape & location, it is called Cerebral cortex.

These three brains work independently as well as interdependently to create the unique ‘human brain’.

Now, you must be thinking “what does it have to do with ‘nonverbal behavior’”? Well, what is really interesting is that while our verbal behavior is guided more by our more advanced part and the ‘seat of thought’ cerebral cortex, our nonverbal behavior is guided more by our evolutionarily old partslimbic system and brainstem. It goes very much in the manner similar to how it goes for an animal.

Now, while cerebral cortex is more intelligent, deliberate and regulated, the deeper parts of the brain are more emotional, reactive and unregulated. As a result, our nonverbal behavior is less regulated and thus represents our emotional state more authentically. It is also beyond our conscious control and although our primate brain can exercise top-down control over it and suppress it, it still can’t curb the generation of that impulse. It is so because the cerebral cortex has more inputs coming from the limbic system than the limbic system has coming from the cortex.

That’s why the emotional impulse and the accompanying nonverbal behavior can be spotted in the early stages of any emotional stimulation, and if at all the suppressing mechanism of cerebral cortex doesn’t work well enough (which is mostly the case) then this emotional undertone also gets (or keeps getting) leaked in the nonverbal behavior. That’s the reason why, while the words may try to be manipulative, nonverbal signals can give the truth away.

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In last video, we saw how evolution played the all-important role in packaging us how we are. Now, let’s see what role it has played in creating our emotional selves. Well! From an evolutionary standpoint, the most important goal of a species is “to survive, and that too for long enough to pass on its genes”. And to achieve this goal, evolution programmed us in the language of ‘emotions’. Thus, emotions are our body’s most apt responses to the situations we find ourselves in.

I deliberately said ‘body’s’ because, by definition, no emotion can occur without an associated bodily action. Yes! There cannot be an emotion without motion. In fact, root word of emotion is ‘motere’ – Latin word for ‘to move’. So, emotions – negative or positive, inherently command movement of some or other type. It might be external to body or internal to it, yet it is there.

For instance, in anger, blood flows towards the hands so that it is easier to grip and hit. In fear, blood rushes to feet so that it is easier to run. In surprise, the eyebrows lift so that more light can strike retina to induct more information of the event. In disgust, the upper lip curls up and nose wrinkles as if to close the nostrils for avoiding something that stinks. In sadness, your energy drops and you withdraw yourself to assess the loss and to plan to deal with it in a safer harbor.

This whole enmeshing of emotions with their respective physiology is brain’s way of helping us meet our evolutionary needs. It is like senses collecting information for the brain, which further activates the apt emotion , that goes on to trigger the pre-defined bodily action to meet corresponding evolutionary goal.

So, this is how emotions and our nonverbal behavior are connected.

However, this helps us derive some characteristics of emotions that are useful in this context.

First, emotions did not evolve as conscious feelings; rather they evolved as subconscious physiological specializations. That’s why we know our emotions more by their intrusion (welcome or unwelcome) into our consciousness. And that’s what makes a major part of nonverbal communication subconsciously produced.

Second, emotions, by nature, are transient. They change all the time…in response to the constant changes in our situations (actual or imagined) or our changing perceptions of those situations. That’s what makes it important to continuously observe one’s nonverbal behavior, as it keeps changing all the time in association with the changing emotional states.

Third, emotions are impulsive. It is because in the era when the basics of our emotional being were getting shaped, we weren’t the master manipulators of the animal kingdom as we are today. We weren’t the cooks, we were the food! So, delay of a second in acting was a matter of ‘life or death’. Thus, ‘reaction’ was a requirement. This characteristic of emotions makes nonverbal behavior ‘difficult to control’.

Now, this last point deserves further explanation. Okay! Emotions are impulses. But then, impulses for which actions? To be precise, ‘5 Fs’ – Freezing, Fleeing, Fighting, Feeding and F – the Reproductive behavior! They together formed (and still form) the operating manual to be followed, not thoughtfully, but simply instinctively. And why these five Fs? Well! Because they have important connections with our evolutionary goal!

In our ancestral past, it made sense to freeze instantaneously because predators mostly were attracted by movement. If that wouldn’t work, it made sense to flee. And if that wouldn’t work either, it made sense to attack before the other animal (or fellow human) attacked! Moreover, whenever one could find food, it made sense to latch on to it before that rare thing was spotted by others; or for that matter to avail a mating opportunity as soon as possible because of the competition, and also because the act of mating always left the ancestors less alert in scanning the environ for danger, thus vulnerable.

But now, you may ask that it was all in our ancestral past, and we have come a long way since then. So, how does all this apply to us – the modern humans? Well! There lies our most fundamental irony. For us – the mortal humans – span of a few hundred or thousand years is a long time, but from evolution’s point of view, it is miniscule. And in last 100 thousand years, civilization has outpaced evolution by a huge margin. Yes! We have beaten the very forces that shaped us! Humans civilized so fast that evolution could just not keep pace with it. And the result is ironic.

Today, we are born in an advanced world, but with a brain whose most basic character is still suited for the Savannahs of Africa a ‘100 thousand’ years ago. Yes! We are born with what evolution thinks worked best for the last 50,000 human generations and not the last 500, so the design of the brain has been impacted very little by last 10,000 years of our history. That’s why, for better or worse, our appraisal of every personal encounter and our responses to it are shaped not just by our rational judgments or our personal history, but also by our distant ancestral past.

Thus, times have changed, but the early imprints still form our brain’s basic building-blocks. And so, even today, we lead a life at two separate levels simultaneously. While our rational thinking is busy analyzing and responding; at every moment, our emotions are still scanning the environment and appraising everything in context of what it means to us in terms of our basic evolutionary needs (5 Fs).

That’s why, still in our modern world, you would find people getting frozen at a horrible scene, only to hide awkwardness later; or running away instantaneously on a prank, only to appraise and laugh later; or getting aggressive in a jiffy, only to regret later; or being tempted by aroma of a delicious dish, only to hit the treadmill later; or not being able to resist looking at a beautiful body, only to pretend later that they were not.

So, the most basic emotional impulses are the ones related to the 5Fs, and that’s precisely why majority of nonverbal behavior is representative of the same.

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You might be asking ‘why are we making such a big deal about it?’ After all, don’t we all already look at people, and change our behavior accordingly? Well! Yes you are right. But there is a difference between looking at someone and…‘Observing’. It is not about the usual commonsensical effort we attempt at it. It is more about an informed scientific approach. And it is important for one simple purpose…

In the last chapters, we discussed why nonverbal behavior is a more trustworthy representation of one’s emotional state. But there is a problem. People aren’t that transparent with their nonverbal behavior. They don’t just give their secret away. And they do so for one of the two reasons – their own motives, and ‘display rules’.

Let’s discuss the reason regarding ‘motives’. In a social apparatus, everyone wants to get benefited, win favors and earn brownie points. In other words, people want to maximize their benefits and minimize their losses. They would typically want to please someone or not displease someone. As a result, they either hide a genuine emotion or show an emotion that is not genuine. It goes on all the time in homes, offices, functions, ceremonies, programs, and virtually everywhere.

The second reason runs far deeper than motives. There has been a long debate on whether the expression of emotions is same in humans across the globe. Here is where another factor comes into play – ‘Culture’! The term ‘display rules’ deals with this aspect. It is an interesting term popularized by Paul Ekman, which hints towards the formal and informal rules & regulations taught by a culture regarding the display of emotions by the members of that community.

All cultures impose or inculcate some or other unwritten ‘display rules’ on the criteria of age, gender, social status, and even occasions. There are particular emotions to be masked and some others to be exaggerated. You can see the difference clearly if you attend a funeral in a western country and one in an eastern nation.

Yes! It has been found that while first unadulterated expressions of emotions are universally same, the ‘display rules’ intervene immediately. As Ekman found, while both a Japanese boy and a Western boy showed similar expression of disgust when alone, the Japanese boy masked his expression of disgust with a smile in presence of an authority figure. This is how culture affects a person’s expression. Yet, even in this case, the preliminary expression would give away the true emotion.

Then, there are an individual’s personal ‘display rules’ that he has decided through his life-experiences, belief-systems and self-image. They are an equally strong deterrent for the genuine expressions to surface.

However, whatever may be the reason, with the detailed knowledge related to nonverbal behavior (which this program intends to pass on), one can not only differentiate between genuine and fake nonverbal behavior but also learn to spot the genuine expressions of the early stages. As they say, ‘God lies in details!’

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Fine! We can observe someone’s nonverbal behavior carefully and then pick signs of discomfort, anxiety, interest or enthusiasm. We can find whether a person is upbeat or dull, or responsive or not. It should be sufficient. Isn’t it? Why harp on knowing the exact emotion? Why sweat so much on trying to get into nuances of our emotional palette and get into subtle differentiation or accurate diagnosis?

Well! That’s the difference between a commonsensical layman and a socially intelligent person. As humans, we have a rich emotional life. And while it may not be feasible to mark every emotion distinctly, it is always desirable to go as close as possible to doing it. So, while one can use a shallow assessment for at least some sort of a benefit, still it is only the deeper understanding of how to spot the particular emotion being felt that would help one engineer the most apt and purposeful response rather than go for a handy hastily-compiled one.

For instance, if a father has caught his son’s wrongdoing and there is real expression of shame on son’s face then this suggests that he still cares for being a good son. However, if the expression is that of contempt then this suggests that he probably doesn’t care or feels that his wrongdoing is justified in some sense. Moreover, if the expression is that of disgust then it suggests that he doesn’t look up to his father or even questions his father’s moral right to question him.

Now, in each of the above cases, what is required to be done on father’s part would differ greatly. Now, imagine if the father would not be able to see these minute differences. As a result, the vibes between the two would change, and this dissonance will only lead to further deterioration of relationship. Thus, in these details lies the social intelligence. This detailed understanding of emotions and the knowledge of how they get manifested is what helps one fine-tune or refine responses in behavioral situations and relationships.

Let’s take another example. In sneer, the lip-corners are drawn sideward to produce a ‘dimple’ in the cheeks. Now, University of Washington psychologist, John Gottman held videotape sessions with 700 married couples discussing their emotional relationships with each other. In the study, he found that even the fleeting cue of sneering is a ‘potent signal’ for predicting the likelihood of future marital disintegration. In this regard, the sneer may be decoded as an unconscious sign of contempt.

Thus, it should be apparent by now that it is important to closely observe and recognize expressions. To be able to differentiate surprise from fear or anger from sadness on someone’s face can make a lot of difference in that person’s life.

Let’s just ask why did expressions evolve? Well! It is often said that, in addition to being adaptive reactions to environmental stimuli, they evolved as social communication signals. Yes! To bring attention of one’s fellow beings towards how one is feeling. This was the foundation of our social living and aided our ability to live in families and communities.

Moreover, it is never only about gauging that someone is uncomfortable, but also knowing the reason of someone’s discomfort. Because that’s what really helps you do something about it. Although this particularizing of emotions is possible through reading facial expressions rather than merely looking at someone’s gestures or postures, still, with a holistic observation of gestures, postures as well as expressions, it is pretty possible to get to heart of the matter and solve it effectively.