Social skills, social capital

12/11/2013 § 3 Comments

I had the pleasure of giving a seminar at Massey University last week. My host and I settled on the topic of ‘being a consultant’ (*.doc), especially as it compares to being a university researcher. The audience was lovely, and I had several good conversations about research and funding.

One topic I didn’t get into was social skills. In my list of Seven Skills of Consulting, I include social skills, and I’ve discussed them here and elsewhere. I’m bringing it up now because of Eric Crampton’s recent post on class etiquette. He rightly points to the signalling value of manners, how they signal whether or not you ‘belong’. And then he links to a fascinating post on the decisions people — specifically poor people — make about buying signals. As Eric points out,

Not knowing which signals need be sent and which are just purposelessly costly is costly.

I’ll put my hand up and admit that I have had it easy in this regard. My family has, in the main, been solidly middle class for more than a century, some branches for even longer. As a result, I was taught which socks to wear, which knife to use, how to write a thank-you note, etc. These lessons at home were reinforced at school, by teachers who taught us to speak correctly and peers who did. For example, I was utterly confused by the lesson that focused on the difference between ‘bought’ and ‘brought’. They are clearly two different words with different pronunciations and meanings — why the special focus? It was only when I was much older that I came across people who confused the two, and it seemed to me a class-based confusion.

I have also noticed, when shopping at Target in the US or at The Warehouse in New Zealand, the class signals from clothing. For the same money, you can buy working-class clothes or middle-class clothes. You have the choice what kind of image you want to portray, what kind of allegiance you want to demonstrate. As the above-linked posts discuss, part of making that choice is having the knowledge — the social capital — to know what to wear and how to wear it.

Relying on that social capital gives me a certain licence. It creates the space in which I can be a consultant, in which I can bowl on up to people and introduce myself or insert myself into discussions. It allows me to flit from meeting to meeting or client to client — it provides a basic level of trust, of membership.

As I told the seminar last week, what I’m really selling is me and my reputation. I could have taken it further: I’m selling an image of me. Social skills are part of that image. Having them or not can make all the difference.

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§ 3 Responses to Social skills, social capital

  • I tried explaining all of this to the five and three year old at dinner the other night, when they reckoned it was ok to push things onto the spoon using a hand instead of a knife or fork. Their looks of blank incomprehension being similar to those I get from the bottom decile of undergrads, I expect I’ll have to cover the lesson again in tutorial…

    • Well, if it were an easy signal for parents to create, everyone would be doing it. Good luck. I still remember my pride and confusion the first time my two kids said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in a shop _without prompting_.

  • amit says:


    social capital has gained significant ground as a means of enhancing
    overall quality and effectiveness

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