The Unwritten Social Rules of Life

Have you ever been in a situation where everyone was different from you? If so you have some concept of what it must be like to have a social skills disorder. I’ve been in that situation many times, most of those times I have been by myself. While it is not the same as actually having a social skills disorder being in an environment that made me feel alone and like an outsider made acutely aware of how important having good social skills is. That’s why I spend so much time talking about this issue.

I can’t imagine where I would be if I had not been able to pick up on the unwritten social rules around me. I certainly would not be writing this to you today.

We all take these social rules for granted. We don’t even notice them unless we’re put in a situation in which we don’t know them. When that happens feelings ranged from isolation and anxiety to circus freak. Being the odd man out is never fun. It’s just too easy to do something wrong. That is exactly what happened the first time my family met Isa’s.

Social Lessons From My Wedding
Isa and I are from very different backgrounds. To say they are different is a massive understatement. Culturally the only way they could be more different is if they didn’t share the same language.

Isa has a liberal Jewish family from New York. I have a conservative Christian family from New Mexico. Her family grew up in the suburbs and the city. My family grew up on farms and ranches in the desert. Her family came here in the last century. Mine was here pre-revolution. You get the point, very different people.

As you can imagine, the first time they met was not comfortable. It was the afternoon before Isa and I were to get married. Everyone was doing their best to not commit a social faux pas. They were all very reserved in their behavior and trying to figure out what was acceptable and what was not. Personally I was sitting in a different room avoiding the whole ordeal.

A Social Rule Gets Violated
Anyway, after what seemed like an eternity my family and I headed out to the car to go back to the hotel. As my brother Greg stepped down from the front steps my then soon to be father-in-law, Jerry, grabbed him and kissed him on both cheeks. Greg promptly became stiff as a board and white as a ghost.

Had I not warned my family that they might get kissed, it may have been a far more uncomfortable situation.

You see my father-in-law had violated an unwritten social rule of our culture. Where I come from kissing is only shared between lovers. Hugging isn’t even accepted by everyone there. So a kiss on both cheeks by another man really shocked my brother.

If it’s difficult for the average adult to follow the unwritten social rules imagine how difficult it must be for a child who has a social skills disorder. For them every day is like trying to understand a different culture. It’s like a pop quiz that they’re not prepared for. Imagine how stressful that must be.

Social Skills Must Be Learned
It is a mistake to assume that just because a child is intelligent or has a great vocabulary that he will pick up social skills on his (or her) own. Social competency doesn’t have anything to do with IQ. You can be perfectly intelligent and still struggle socially. That’s because social skills have to be learned.

The analogy I always give is math. Some people just get it, while others struggle with it.

I flip numbers, so I’m someone who struggles with it. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn it. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It just means that there is a specific way I have to learn it. I can learn just about anything else by any method I choose. I can see it, hear it or do it, doesn’t matter unless it is math related. If it is math related I have to see it, hear it and do it frequently in order for it to stick.

It’s similar for children who have trouble socially except social interactions are far more complex than math. Whereas math has clear and logical rules, social interactions are heavily influenced by emotions and context. If you don’t have some understanding of emotion and context it makes it very difficult to act in a socially acceptable manner.

The Road To Good Social Skills
A child cannot learn emotion and context by being taught social skills in isolation. While it is important in some cases to either start with or focus on the behavior, social skills need to be taught in a broader context that either is or feels like a natural environment.

Think about it. What good does it do to teach your child to look you in the eyes if he doesn’t understand why? It’s like handing him the formula for division without explaining how and why to use it. In fact a frequent complaint of children who have been taught skills in isolation is that they did not understand why they should use the skill. Once they understood why they should use a skill improved how they used it.

Appropriate social skills instruction seeks to create social understanding. Unfortunately very few programs have this objective. That is one of the main things that hold them and the children they work with back.

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Jason Marrs

Jason Marrs is the Director of Research and Awareness for the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. Read More