Advice for Social Interactions and Relationships
May 2008 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
Here are some tips about social interactions and relationships that I've learned from my parents, friends, colleagues, mentors, and my own experiences. In short, always prioritize people over material things, develop genuine long-term relationships rather than superficially schmoozing, and don't risk tarnishing your reputation.
Take every chance to engage with people
My parents always emphasized the importance of maintaining a 'good social network', but it took me many years to adapt their high-level advice into my own life. While growing up, I thought they simply meant that it was vital to schmooze, fawn, 'network', and do other business-like actions learned from cheesy how-to books. I always found the thought of going through such motions to be artificial and lame, especially since I'm not currently doing a business-related job.
What I think my parents truly meant was something that's far easier to accomplish without acting like a total phony: Take every chance to have fun engaging in genuine interpersonal interactions, but don't go out of your way or be phony about it. Just take the initiative to hang out with people you know rather than sitting at home watching YouTube and eating Doritos chips all day.
In other words, prioritize people over material things. Do what feels natural without the explicit intention of 'building up your social network' in your mind. Chances are that you will organically develop and maintain a genuine network of friends and acquaintances. The number of people you know isn't as important as the quality of your relationships with them.
Avoid developing the reputation of a schmoozer
Don't force social interactions when it feels out of place, because people are great at sniffing out phonies. If you ever get the reputation of being a 'social butterfly' or a 'schmoozer', then people will lose some respect for you. It's better to know 50 people and have them all like you than to know 500 people and have them all think that you're a sycophant.
A tarnished reputation can be difficult to mend, especially after people gossip about you to your mutual friends, so try to avoid giving them fodder for negative gossip in the first place.
A related tip is to never suck up to somebody right near when you want a favor from him/her. Anyone with half a brain will sniff you out and brand you with a 'MAJOR PHONY' seal.
Maintain positive relationships, because you never know who is going to be there for you later in life
I've lost touch with people whom I thought would become lifelong friends, and I sometimes get pleasantly surprised by people whom I only knew casually from childhood. If you maintain positive relationships with people (even casually), then there's a greater chance that somebody will be there to offer you advice, support, housing, or even a job when you are in your time of need ... and the coolest part is that it's probably not who you expect!
That's why it's useless to 'socially engineer' your relationships by befriending people whom you feel will be 'useful' to you later in life. Besides likely tripping off people's phoniness detectors, you probably won't be able to predict how 'useful' certain individuals will be to you years down the line. So the best strategy is also the easiest—just be nice to people so that you naturally develop a good reputation, and you will increase the chances that someone will be there to support you in the future.
Acquaintances remember very little about you, so make sure what they do remember is positive
From the previous tips in this section, it might seem like it could take lots of effort to maintain positive relationships. But in reality, it's much less work than you think, because the vast majority of your social network will consist of casual friends and acquaintances, not close friends (see my Types of Friends article).
Your close friends will remember a lot about you, but the vast majority of people you come across in life won't. Think about what you remember about your casual acquaintances ... not much, right? At the coarsest level, you only remember the high-order bit: whether they left a POSITIVE or NEGATIVE impression in your mind. At some more detail, you might remember selected aspects of their personality, interests, and areas of expertise.
Now flip the question: What do your casual acquaintances remember about you? That part you can control. By definition, you don't interact with your casual acquaintances very often, so they don't have much evidence on which to base their judgements of you. So if you act pleasant, polite, and interesting, then they'll be more likely to associate you with a positive impression. It doesn't take much work at all.
Acquaintances are more likely than close friends to be unexpectedly helpful in the future
Why is it so important to have your casual acquaintances think positively about you? (After all, they don't know you that well.) Because they will likely be the people who unexpectedly help you in the future.
Your good friends will be there for you no matter what, but they are limited in the ways they can help because, paradoxically, they have so much in common with you: They are probably in the same profession, live in the same area, and of the same socioeconomic class as you are, so if you need something outside of your 'comfort zone', then it's probably out of theirs as well.
On the other hand, your acquaintances are likely a much more diverse group from a variety of locations and backgrounds, so it's more likely that one of them will be able to help you in ways your close friends cannot. If you are traveling abroad and need a place to stay, chances are that you will have to rely on a casual acquaintance. If you want to inquire about job openings in a field that you don't know well, chances are that you will have to rely on a casual acquaintance. Your so-called 'weak links' to acquaintances can actually be more valuable at times than the 'strong links' to your close friends, because they often cross geographical and social boundaries.
(For more information about types of links in social networks, read the excellent book Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks.)
Remember a few up-to-date, concrete details about people you know
If you're having coffee with a friend whom you haven't seen for months or even years, nothing impresses him more than you remembering something concrete about his life. You can instantly build rapport by showing him that you care enough to actually remember what he's been up to lately.
It's always best to remember precise details, but when your memory is fuzzy, you can still appear to be more knowledgeable than you actually are by asking general questions, eliciting responses, and making educated guesses based on what you actually remember. For example, if you remember that his son plays some team sport but not which one, you could say something like, "So, how's your kid's little league team doing?" This vague statement applies most directly if your friend's son plays baseball, but even if he plays football, basketball, or another sport, your guess was close enough that your friend will be impressed.
Even if your guesses aren't accurate, it's better to attempt to start the conversation based on whatever you do remember than simply flat-out asking him a boring generic question like, "So, what have you been up to lately?" This sort of question demonstrates that you don't remember much of anything about him. A more warm-sounding opener would be something like, "So I remember from last year that you were interested in getting into international marketing ... have you taken your career down that path?" Chances are, this will incite your friend to talk about his interest (and be impressed that you remembered), but even if he totally switched careers, he will still appreciate that you remembered his former interest.
Do a better job of staying in touch than your peers are doing
It goes without saying that staying in touch with your friends and acquaintances is extremely important. However, doing so might seem like too much effort since everyone is busy with their daily grind. Thus, most people are terrible at staying in touch, especially years after high school or college graduation. That's why if you just spend a little bit more effort in keeping in touch than your peers do, then it will appear to them like you're great at keeping in touch! So try to devote some time each month to calling or getting coffee with old friends. You don't have to be a professional networker; all you need to do is to be better than your peers, and that bar is usually pretty low.
Achieving critical mass via positive feedback
If you are coordinating a social event and want enough people attending to make it fun for everyone, you might find it hard to get the first few people on-board. As more people sign up, it becomes easier to convince even more people to sign up, thus creating a positive feedback loop. If you ask your friend whether she would like to go to your event, she will probably think, "Hmmm, I dunno, who else is going? I'll go if other people I know go." Unfortunately, if everyone thinks that way, then nobody will sign up in the first place.
One effective way to bootstrap the invitation process is to first probe for interest amongst a few close friends who can dedicate themselves to going, and make it publicly known who has agreed to sign up. Email coordination where people 'Reply-to-All' or online coordination websites can facilitate this plan, since people can see who else have already decided to go. I usually first get a few close friends interested and then send a mass email out to a larger group saying something like "Joe, Jane, Jack, and I are planning a hiking trip next weekend ..." to show that at least several people have already signed up.
Once several of your friends are on-board, then their other friends are more likely to sign up, then their friends, and so forth until you achieve the all-important critical mass of people needed to make the event really fun. The number of people required for critical mass depends on the event; it's the threshold when an event goes from being kinda lame to being super fun. This is especially evident in parties: When there are only a few people present (even cool people), it seems kinda lame, but when it gets more crowded, all of a sudden it becomes super fun. Regardless of the number of people involved, positive feedback is the key to achieving critical mass.
Set a precise time and location when planning
If you want to get people together for a social event, set a precise time and place to meet, and then let everyone know that your decision is subject to change. The alternative -- polling people for what time and place would work best for everyone -- is not only more inefficient but also more time-consuming and potentially aggravating. Most people just want to follow along with what the organizer proposes, so be clear and definitive in proposing a concrete plan. But you must also be prepared to have plans change and adjust to people's preferences, so that you don't appear like a tyrant.
Sequels are almost never as good
When you've had a lot of fun hanging out with someone or at a social event, it might be tempting to try to replicate that experience again in the near future. If you try to do that, the second time won't be nearly as much fun as the first. Sequels are almost never as good as the originals. Why? Because of elevated expectations. The first time was really fun probably because you had no prior expectations, but if you try to purposely plan the second time to be super fun, then your elevated expectations might lead to disappointment.
Cherish the good memory, move on with your life, and give it some time. If you have a lot of fun with someone today, don't be overeager to ask her to hang out tomorrow to do exactly the same thing. Wait a week or two so that you've both had time to be busy with other things and can actually look forward to seeing one another again. Even the most exciting activities become routine and mundane when they're repeated too frequently.
How long to wait depends on the nature of the events and the people involved; there's no clear-cut formula. One way to judge whether you haven't waited long enough is if you feel bored and tired of the people you're with, like you've seen them too much recently.
Enthusiasm, not time, prevents interactions
If someone really wants to hang out with you, then he will make the time and effort to do so. This is especially true for one-on-one interactions between peers (rather than, say, family members acting out of obligation). Make a clear offer and give your friend time to respond, but don't be pushy or repetitive. If he is genuinely interested in seeing you (i.e., the fun and benefits of hanging out with you outweigh the perceived costs), then he will make the time to do so.
If your friend is truly busy but is still interested in hanging out with you, then he will respond with a request for a 'rain check' to re-schedule for a later time. People naturally have a hard time flat-out saying no, so they will usually make excuses like "I'm pretty busy nowadays", which is an implicit No. However, if they say something like "I'm pretty busy in the next few weeks, but let's really try to do something next month", then that's more of an indicator of interest.
Resist the temptation of being pushy and eagerly following-up by asking "have you received my messages?" or "did you get around to my email yet?" If your friend hasn't gotten around to it yet, then he is prioritizing your request lower than the other tasks he needs to do right now. Being pushy will make him want to see you less, not more.
Adjust your expectations of people according to their behavior towards you
If you really want to hang out with somebody but he doesn't seem to be as enthusiastic as you are, then make a mental note and adjust your expectations of him accordingly. He probably has higher-priority tasks at the moment, so don't take it as a personal insult. If you have certain expectations of someone and he doesn't meet them, one response is to become angry or frustrated, which doesn't help to improve your relationship.
I've found that a better response is to lower your expectations for that person and move onto your other priorities (e.g., your other friends). This way, you won't get angry and will appear more likeable since people will think that you're more of an easy-going, laid-back person who doesn't hold grudges.
I'm definitely not advocating simply giving up and breaking off contact with people who don't match your every expectation. People's attitudes are in constant flux, and sometimes if you take enough of an initiative, their attitudes about you can change. Just because a person isn't feeling enthusiastic about you at the moment doesn't mean that she will always feel that way. It's up to you to find the right balance of assertiveness versus patience when dealing with people.
Know a bit about everyone around you to minimize the chances of offending someone
If you aren't absolutely sure that nobody will be offended by something you say, then don't risk it. This applies most strongly to potentially divisive topics such as politics, religion, and cultural values. You will need to be more careful when directly engaging larger groups, since there are greater numbers of taboo topics (unless the group is fairly homogeneous). All it takes is for one sensitive person to be offended to make you look like an asshole. Of course, you shouldn't have a stick up your butt and remain silent or, even worse, tiptoe like a shrewd politician who doesn't want to offend anyone. You need to ultimately find your own balance of openness versus restraint.
A more difficult feat is not accidentally offending your audience by dishonoring somebody that someone knows. For example, if you remember that someone's mother is dead, then don't make "yo mamma" jokes (unless you want to receive the awkward "oh, my mother is dead"). Similarly, if you know that someone's relatives went to community college, then don't make fun of community colleges. Obviously, you can't know everything about everyone's relatives and friends, so the best way to stay out of trouble is to watch what you way at informal social events.
STATUS AND POWER
Don't disregard people with less experience and status, because they won't be novices forever
In any professional or social environment, there are always newbies, underclassmen, fresh recruits, or new kids at the bottom of the local status hierarchy. Most people don't reach out to and help novices, not because they are mean-spirited, but simply because they are busy with higher-priority tasks like doing their own work, advancing their own careers, and impressing people of higher status. The bystander effect also alleviates one's guilt of not reaching out to newbies (after all, someone else probably will).
Offer help to newbies if it's not too much hassle. They are likely to appreciate somebody of higher status reaching out to them. They might grow to respect and to look up to you, which provides you with satisfaction. But the best potential effect is long-term: In the future, the newbie you helped will no longer be new; she will likely have significantly higher status and power, and she might remember you for your generosity way back when she was a beginner.
You never know when you can benefit from such a connection. Sometime in the future, you might have a high-status connection, but you would have formed it when the person was still of low status. Think about how much easier, less intimidating, and more fun it is to mentor a newbie than trying to form a high-status connection at the present with one of your superiors.
Of course, I'm not saying that you should be artificially nice to newbies with the sole purpose of reaping the rewards years later. It's unhealthy and disingenuous to treat people like commodities or investments; strive to build genuine relationships. Most of the time, you won't reap any direct benefits from most connections you make, but it's worth trying if the burden to you is low and the potential benefits are high.
Don't risk having people who already think highly of you lose respect for you
At any given time, you can probably partition the set of people you know into those who don't have strong feelings about you, those who don't think well of you, those who think of you in a moderately positive light, and finally those who genuinely think highly of you. Don't risk losing the respect of those who truly look up to and admire you. They are already your fans, and they will keep on being your fans unless you screw up and lose their respect.
Some people might grow complacent about the respect they receive from family, friends, and younger peers. They might be tempted by the prospect of gaining the respect of those with more power and higher social status, at the cost of disregarding people they already know.
The classic case is that of the adolescent who has a comfortable close-knit social group but desires to climb up the social ladder to try to impress the cool kids. In her futile attempt, she alienates herself from her original group of friends.
This risk of 'burning bridges' is never worth it, because it's much harder to gain the respect of those who don't already respect you than to simply maintain the respect of those who already do.
When you are someone of high status/power, your mere presence might be intimidating
People in positions of high status/power are often intimidating simply because of who they are, despite their best efforts at easing the minds of everyone else. It's not anyone's fault, just a consequence of the imbalance of power.
For example, say you're the head of a company and call a meeting to gauge your employees' opinions on how things are going. You act friendly and receptive and encourage people to present their views, but for some reason everyone seems reluctant to speak. They seem to be holding back because they're afraid of your disagreement or criticism. You grow frustrated because you're not purposely grilling anybody or trying to be mean; on the contrary, you're trying your best to be friendly to everyone, but people are still afraid of you. Just by your mere presence, you've instilled some degree of fear even though that wasn't your intention.
There's no easy solution to this problem, but merely being aware of it can help you to at least realize why people act differently around you, despite your desires that they act more naturally.
GETTING WHAT YOU WANT
Politely ask for a favor if the cost is low to none, regardless of potential benefits
When we want something, we often hesitant to ask because we feel that it might be too much trouble or that the person we are asking might get annoyed. Then we play out hypothetical scenarios in our heads, filled with 'what ifs', which nag us into becoming more and more anxious.
One simple relief for this anxiety is to think about the costs of asking, and if they're low to none, then just ask for it! Even if the expected benefit is low (i.e., you're probably not gonna get what you want), if there's little to no cost, then it's worth a shot. Even if the person says no, you still have the option of asking 'why not?' and triggering him to justify his response. The worst thing that could happen is that he says no, but at least you might be able to learn a bit more about why you've been rejected.
I'm not suggesting for you to always annoy the hell out of people with questions, but often one simple question (and possible 'why not?' follow-up) asked in a polite tone won't offend anyone. My mother taught me about the importance of tone and attitude: When you are in a subservient position (e.g., a student), smiling and being ultra-polite might do the trick; when you are in a more dominant position (e.g., a client paying for a service), being firmer and more authoritative might work better. The appropriate tone depends on the context and on your relationship with the person to whom you are making the request.
When the cost of asking is too high (e.g., if you ask your boss something annoying, then she might lose some respect for you and damage your future career prospects), then don't do it unless the perceived benefits are greater. But most of the time, especially when facing strangers whom you will likely never see again, the cost of asking politely is zero or nearly zero.
Get service in-person rather than over the phone because you will likely receive better treatment
I recently went to my bank to inquire about my accounts and, to my pleasant surprise, the customer service representative was super nice to me and helped me optimize my accounts and waive a bunch of fees and other stupid shit that I had to pay because I still had a generic student account that I opened years earlier. I left there extremely satisfied with the awesome service I had received, but then I thought a bit harder and realized that I had been ripped off all of these years since I stuck with the default and never went to the bank in-person to ask to see if I could get anything better.
I think many money-making organizations employ similar tricks—give the customers something sorta crappy by default and offer to sweeten the deal for the rare few who actually come in-person and talk to a human being. The vast majority of people stick with the defaults, which rakes in more money for these organizations, and they are more than happy to sweeten the deal for the minority who come in-person in return for their gratitude, continued patronage, positive word-of-mouth vibe, and a feeling of receiving 'great customer service'.
Money-making organizations aren't charities, so if they're being nice to you, there must be some (direct or indirect) financial incentive. I'm not saying that they are ill-willed or malicious, but merely that they are looking out for themselves first and foremost, and you need to look out for yourself as well.