Playing nice: social skills for consulting

13/02/2012 § 2 Comments

Last week, my daughter got a bit of gristle in her mince and spat it out on her plate. We upbraided her for having bad table manners. I explained that the general rule is, if you want to take something (gristle, olive pit) out of your mouth at the table, you take it out the way you put it in.

This is not a rule from my childhood. It’s one I picked up from a women’s magazine one day. It’s the sort of little rule for behaviour — etiquette — that’s useful for consultants.

We’ve all heard about first impressions. Different numbers get tossed around about how quickly they are formed: first 7 seconds, first 20 seconds, whatever. The point is, people quickly get a first impression of you and it’s hard to change it.

That first impression is created by a bunch of social signals. How are you dressed? What sort of language do you use? How’s your grooming? Do you have a firm handshake?

As a consultant, you are selling yourself. People have to feel comfortable and confident in you. They may not fully understand what you do (or they’d be doing it themselves). They can’t judge your work so much as they can judge you. To judge you, they need criteria. The easiest criteria handy are all those little social conventions around proper behaviour, including dressing, eating, everyday chit-chat, formal communication, etc.

As you develop a reputation, those first impressions become less important. You begin to be judged more on the results you produce. However, those signals from social conventions are still being transmitted. Do you properly introduce people at social functions? Do your letters use the right openings and closings?

That’s the reason that social skills are important: they are what you’re being graded on.

Let me say that I know there is an arbitrary element to this. Why should certain pronunciations be more acceptable? Why shake hands at all? Darned if I know. Just is.

But this arbitrariness actually makes it simpler. It’s just a bunch of accepted rules. They can be learned. If you’re smart enough to understand multivariable calculus, if you’re disciplined enough to calculate determinants by hand, you can learn a few rules of etiquette. You don’t even have to work that hard at it. Newspapers have etiquette columns, so do all those women’s magazines at the doctor’s office. Read them occasionally, and you’ll accumulate a collection of rules to help you through any situation. If you really want to work at, there are books and books about it. And, of course, there’s always the internet. Type in your question — someone is bound to have asked it before.

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ With the right social skills, you can play the role of a consultant. Do it right and people will believe you.

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§ 2 Responses to Playing nice: social skills for consulting

  • You know you’re just helping here to perpetuate the privilege of the elite who get schooled in the rules, right? If you want to provide a social service, mix things up a bit. Be competent, but ignore some particularly inefficient conventions – especially ones that are less likely to have been picked up by competent folks who haven’t had access to an “elite manners” background.

    Ok, yes, I am just annoyed that the social convention *apparently* is to hold the fork upside down and pile the food on the part where it’s most likely to fall off. After seeing folks do that, I’m mildly surprised they don’t try eating soup holding a spoon the same way.

  • Bill says:

    Hee, hee. There are hidden costs to immigration.
    Actually, that’s one of the points of social skills. They are somewhat costly to acquire, especially if they were not part of your original socialisation. Like any cost, a consultant has to figure out the marginal costs and benefits. What is the penalty in NZ for not backhanding your food? That depends on whom you are trying to impress. Only you can make that judgement (as the individual with the information and control).

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