5 Reasons We Need Classes on How to Talk to People
People are always going on about how America is falling behind in education, by which they mean math and science and spleling and al that crapp no one ever usses. But what about social skills? How to talk to people, how to deal with disagreements, what types of people to check for in a room before telling a dirty joke -- where are those classes?
"Oh, people don't need a class for that," you might say. "We just naturally pick that up. Unless we are autistic." Maybe that used to be the case. But now ...
Kids Don't Get to Play
At first, when I read this article, where the authors say their students "can't share easily or listen in a group," "have impulse control problems and have trouble keeping their hands to themselves," and "don't always see that actions have consequences," I yawned, thinking it was another one of those boring parenting articles making a big deal about kindergartners acting like kindergartners.
It turns out those are Harvard college students.
"Today, we're going to learn about using our outside voice."
The authors theorize that this is what happens when parents see every moment of school, tutoring, tennis lessons and piano lessons as "productive time" toward building their little future doctor/lawyer, and see free play as a waste of precious time.
Even ordinary kids whose parents think playing is fine are getting their playtime trimmed down as schools keep cutting down on recess and gym.
How I miss those endless hours playing "monorail."
And childhood is a pretty important time for social development, where kids learn cooperation ("You hold the bucket over the door and I'll get Kevin."), negotiation ("You got to be Batman last time, so now you're Robin."), how to handle hurt feelings ("They won't play with me because I have cooties?") and how to handle conflict ("No, YOU'RE a stupidhead!"). Honestly, the last one takes a couple decades to sort out.
Many decades sometimes.
Anyway, you think, Fine, so growing up is going to be a little awkward for these kids but they'll be the ones laughing at the rest of us when they buy a yacht with their brain surgeon money. Actually they may not even get there. Let's see what happens when little Johnny -- violin virtuoso, Math Olympics champion and 5.0 GPA high school class valedictorian -- starts applying for med school.
Med Schools Are Testing Applicants for Social Skills
It turns out a growing number of med schools are starting to test applicants' social and interpersonal skills in addition to looking at their grades, test scores and number of useless clubs joined.
Virginia Tech Carilion runs applicants through a pile of eight-minute interviews with a different interviewer every time where they had to discuss some kind of hypothetical ethical dilemma, like how would you deal with a patient who insisted they didn't need a nose job or something. The interviewer would throw some curve balls at them, like, what if her nose was really ugly, and doesn't society have the right to not look at it? There weren't any right answers, it was just to see if they could deal with touchy situations without pitching a fit or pulling a Rain Man.
"If I don't hear the question, maybe I don't have to answer it!"
Med schools and universities in general have always made a big thing about looking for "well-rounded" students, but they've always had terrible ways of looking for it. Clubs are a joke -- I went to a high school that was a spawning pool for doctors and lawyers, and someone was always starting a very productive-sounding club like the Asian-American Debate Club or what have you, which did nothing all year but let the founder and all her friends put a "club officer" position on their college apps. There was an actual debate club, that actually did things, but seriously, like the college admissions officer would know which was which.
Even a meaningful, productive club is still a small and often homogeneous group, so while the kid may learn to talk to some people, they may never get out of a comfortable bubble. And again, it's absurd to expect the admissions officer to have any idea which type of club they're looking at.
The Buffy Fanfiction Club speaks for itself though.
The extremely insincere typical form-letter college essay doesn't help either, and a lot of hobbies just indicate that the kid doesn't study in a tower room every waking moment, not that they actually engage with people. Maybe they learned a lot about teamwork and heartbreak and jealousy and humility on that baseball team, or maybe they just stood in the outfield and stared into space. You can't know.
So instead of having the kid tell you what a think-on-his-feet diplomat he is, why not have him just show you? Makes more sense.
Which leads to the bigger question: Why is this so important to med schools? Well, because ...
Doctors With Social Skills Fix Patients Better
Now, those who haven't watched Patch Adams might think that the basics of medicine are making the right diagnosis and giving people the right drugs and surgery for it, and having the doctor be nice to you is sort of a luxury, but doesn't affect the real serious problem of your cancer or diabetes or whatnot.
The truth is, just like Patch Adams' painfully corny comedy consistently made patients' physical conditions worse ...
Tell me your blood pressure didn't go up a little.
And patients aren't the only ones affected by doctor assholery or awkwardness. Not surprisingly, when doctors and nurses don't get along, patients don't do so well either. Doctors play such a big leadership role in a hospital that when they're difficult, everything is difficult, and someone fucks up a chart and they end up amputating the wrong leg or giving a man a Cesarean.
Which has historically been appropriate in only one case.
We watch shows like House and get used to the idea of curmudgeonly doctors being impossible in a quirky, interesting way, but the reality is that people acting like that have probably indirectly killed people.
Engineers and Programmers Aren't Off the Hook Either
Fine, you might think. I can see why doctors would need this stuff, and probably business types. But, hey, if you can't talk to people, you can still become a programmer or something.
First, as an aside, apparently business graduates are also becoming incompetent at human interaction, increasingly demonstrating "unacceptable handshakes, inappropriate manners at business meals, improperintroductions and unsuitable lunch behavior as well as some general office errors."
Unsuitable lunch behavior?
Secondly, sure, IT and engineering are magnets for people increasingly desperate to find some kind of job that won't expose their inability to talk to others, as you can see in these somewhat touching forum posts.
If you read the rest of that thread you will see that those poor guys are out of luck. The only job where you don't have to deal with any people at all is probably wilderness explorer, and nowadays, chances are you will attract a camera crew following you around anyway. As an engineer, you don't have to be a super-suave schmoozer, but you do have to have a fairly impressive array of interpersonal skills to really get far.
But there's help! MIT is actually teaching people skills classes to some of its best students, tired of seeing them passed over for promotions in favor of dumbass MBAs with winning smiles. And a lot of IT professionals, tired of getting nowhere because they keep sighing loudly every time someone doesn't understand something, take the initiative to fix things at professional how-to-talk-to-people courses.
Because the truth is, the people that move up are the people who understand people. They may not understand the most efficient way to pursue technological developments, or the difference between a hard drive and a memory stick, or what a computer is, but they know "appropriate lunch behavior." So, like many office humorists have observed, many workplaces are full of smart, technical people being managed by smooth talkers who are still amazed by email.
That's kind of horrible. And that's why ...
Smart People Need Social Skills to Revolt Against Dumb Bosses
A lot of us would prefer to work in a corner somewhere and not have to worry about office politics or kissing asses or spending countless hours in meetings. Some of us are even afraid of asking how someone's day was or explaining the project we are working on. Or even asking a teammate on the same project what they are doing.
And sure, you might be happy knowing that you know what you're doing and that you're doing a good job, and you don't care about being promoted. The bosses might be a bunch of buzzword-swapping know-nothings who get all their technical knowledge from Hollywood movies and ask you to try "reversing the polarity" when something goes wrong, but you'll just vent about it to your co-workers later and have a good laugh.
"Then he asked if I couldn't just put on a helmet and hack into the database!"
The thing is that management is steering the ship. At its worst, they could have thousands of brilliant engineers, scientists or programmers studying how to manufacture adamantium or stop time. Or a district full of experienced teachers throwing out their curriculum and copying lesson plans directly from Dangerous Minds and School of Rock. If they don't have enough field expertise to tell who's good and who's incompetent, when layoffs come, they might as well be throwing darts blindfolded at an employee list.
Or the actual employees, why not.
And all this could have been stopped if some knowledgeable but shy employee had stepped up and taken one of them Carnegie interpersonal skill classes or just made himself practice chatting with a different co-worker at lunch every day, or something. That employee could work their way up to a position where they could focus the department on something that's actually physically possible. Also they would have more friends and dates.
Because this isn't just about faking social skills and manipulating people with some stupid "social engineering" tricks. Learning things like empathy and listening puts you in a place where you understand other people a little better, and saves you from living in a paranoid world where you imagine everyone's thinking bad things about you, or everyone you don't get along with is an oversimplified villain or shallow stereotype.
And if you like to be honest and blunt, that's one thing, but it's another thing when half the people you're talking to think you're insulting them just because you don't know what phrases come across as condescending. You'll alienate both the people you meant to rip on, and the people you didn't. Maybe you want to come across as that sarcastic, insulting guy -- but not on accident, right?
"But I said you were PLEASANTLY plump! That's a positive!"
I know a lot of us don't have the energy to socialize with more than a certain number of people every day, and that's no problem. I'm just saying that I see a lot of Internet people express the view that 90 percent of people out there are boring or vapid and they don't need to learn to deal with them. They'll just hang out with the few people that respond positively whenever they blurt out whatever is in their head at the moment, and trying to adapt their manner to get along with anybody else is "being fake" and "not being themselves."
You miss out on a lot of life that way. And if that's fine with you, keep in mind it's that kind of attitude that's going to lead to some company spending millions on developing sentient kangaroos when one employee has an AIDS cure gathering dust or something. You could have stopped that. Just saying.
For classes we need to teach our kids, check out The 10 Most Important Things They Didn't Teach You In School. And then check out things people actually learned about, in Smash Bros Theory: 6 Absurd Classes Taught at Actual Colleges.