EXCERPT from Social Thinking at Work


The Social Mind: It’s Always on the Job, Even When You’re Off the Job

When people at work say they were, “talking around the water cooler” or “making small talk,” what do they really mean? Why is it that someone can come up with a brilliant strategy, but be unable to effectively communicate the idea in a meeting with fellow managers? How is it that a person can be recognized for his productivity on the job, but never is included in the lunchroom social chatter? Where are the social rules of the workplace written, and how come it seems not everyone got the memo?

The “memo,” it turns out, is something most people are born with—an intuitive sense that allows them to be naturally aware of social expectations and feeds them the information they need to follow the social code. But not everyone is born with this ability.

Most neurotypical people rely on a built-in “social mining device” (or social radar system) that figures out the “hidden rules” of each social situation—the unwritten code of conduct that everyone is supposed to know and follow—as well as how to assess the various people encountered across a day. They can quickly detect who understands the social code and who doesn’t.

If you aren’t naturally equipped to absorb or process the necessary information needed to decipher the “social code”, it is possible to develop your own social mining device and improve your social ability. It takes time, practice and determination.

One important hidden rule is that social expectations vary by situation, not location. For example, when you come into work in the morning, your colleagues expect you to acknowledge them, if only with a brief look and small smile. However, the next time you see someone during the day, the situation has changed—you have already acknowledged the person and do not need to greet him again. How you speak to a coworker is also situationally determined. If you are in a private discussion, you may speak much more casually and openly than if you are presenting the same information in a formal meeting.

Our social radar system gets activated at different times throughout the day, even when we’re not planning to speak to anyone. For instance, when we walk into a meeting where we are expected mostly to listen, it’s interesting to notice how many thoughts and emotions we have about the people around us. We evaluate whether we “like” the person who is speaking, and we find ourselves aware of those sitting nearby. Even if we won’t be talking to most of the people in the room, we’ll still have thoughts and related emotions about all of them. And they will have thoughts and related emotions about us.

In fact, we will (or should) adjust our behavior based on what we think people may be thinking about us. For example, if we feel tired and are with other people, we probably won’t yawn loudly, close our eyes or put our head down to rest as we might do when we’re alone. Why? Because we don’t want to call negative attention to ourselves or cause others to have “uncomfortable thoughts” about our behavior or lack of participation. The hidden rules are one way we can figure out what is considered polite and cooperative behavior in a situation. It is a mistake to think there is only one set of “social rules” when at work.

Our social radar system is also in play when we’re out in the world, say in a car or on public transit. How we navigate when sharing the road with others and how we maneuver our bodies on a bus or train are guided by what we think people around us are planning next or how our presence is making them feel. So we don’t tailgate not only because it is unsafe, but also because we know it probably annoys the driver whom we’re following too closely. Even though we don’t know this person and will likely never cross his or her path again, we still want to show a sort of respect, or common courtesy, that comes from using our social thinking.

We are expected to be constantly aware of who is around us and to anticipate what they plan to do in our shared space. We’re also expected to try to figure out why people are doing what they are doing, and how they may feel when they are doing it. The social mind is on constant alert. While our other systems can often take a rest, the social mind gets almost no time off.

Put a dozen coworkers in a room together casually, and notice how almost immediately they break off into smaller groups. What brings them together is not just what is being said, but how others make them feel.

People are more likely to stay if they feel comfortable—if they’re included in the conversation (even if the topic is not of particular interest) or are made to feel that others are interested in them. They are less likely to stick around if they feel uncomfortable—if they become overwhelmed by how much another person is talking, for example, or irritated by someone’s boasting.

Although most people don’t want to acknowledge it, thoughts and emotions—our own and those of others—are some of the most powerful social realities we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is true for both women and men, although they may have different ways of processing and expressing their feelings. One probable reason we don’t like to acknowledge our emotions is the high premium placed in our culture on logic and fact. We don’t want to think that our feelings or emotional reactions are swaying our responses to the world around us. Nor do we care to acknowledge that how we feel about something or someone is such a powerful determinant in our decision-making. Emotional processing even influences whom we hire and how we work with others. The book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (O. Brafman & R. Brafman, 2008) addresses this topic well.

As important as the social mind is, we receive very little instruction about how to operate this complex piece of machinery. As we grow up, our teachers and often our parents give the social mind little attention, and there are even fewer people to coach us in adulthood. We’re expected to learn to negotiate, cooperate and respect others intuitively. We are celebrated if our social brain naturally figures out how to work well with people, and we can be shunned, demoted or isolated if our brain does not pick up on the social cues that others grasp easily.

Many people with highly developed minds related to their professions are not nearly as gifted in how they relate to others’ minds. Think about the doctor with the poor bedside manners, or the brilliant engineer who can’t lead a team of people competently. No matter how intelligent or accomplished these individuals may be in their chosen field of work, if their social mind is not functioning in tandem with their professional mind, this might explain some of the trouble they have operating in the workplace. Or this may be a reason for the lack of promotions they receive compared to other colleagues who may not be as talented in the same field of work.

The social mind has a powerful “social memory” that can hold people accountable for their behavior over time. If we remember that someone criticized an idea without using tact, we are not likely to be a cheerleader for ideas he presents. Tit for tat—the social world can be a harsh and unforgiving place. But it can also be warm and encouraging; it has a lot to do with how we play our social cards.

The social world also makes use of “mental manipulation.” We occasionally say things we don’t truly mean to encourage a person to have a better thought about us or to motivate them to do more for the company. In political campaigns, all candidates make promises they can’t or won’t uphold. Knowing that, people tend to vote for the candidate they think is telling the fewest lies or offering the ideas they most want to hear. This type of mental play is accepted as a normal human foible. Most any socially neurotypical person will confess to a time he assured a friend she looked good when he didn’t really think so, or said that she was doing well when she really wasn’t. While as a society we value honesty and integrity, bending the truth to take care of how our words make someone feel or think about us is an accepted form of the social dance.

This book is dedicated to those with social learning challenges. It has been developed from years of working with clients, both children and adults, at our Social Thinking Center in San Jose, California. Those born to a strong academic intelligence but weaker social intelligence can learn more cognitively about the social learning process. For you, the first step in building strengths out of relative learning weaknesses is to understand the concepts outlined in this book. Being able to better understand the expectations of the social mind—even if the concepts are never mastered—has proven to be helpful not only for your own learning, but also for your peace of mind. Our goal is to make information explicit by breaking down and defining how the social mind works, and how it is linked to social-emotional and behavioral expectations.

Many of us grew up with a single idea of intelligence, related to tests we were given in school and how well a teacher or parent thought we were learning academic concepts. Good language skills, a healthy vocabulary and aptitude in one or more subjects are the types of strengths we learned to identify with someone who is “smart.”

But the definition of smart should not be based on such limited parameters. Many talented athletes, artists, writers and mathematicians didn’t perform well in school; Einstein was one famous example. Looking beyond test scores, it is apparent there are many different kinds of smarts—athletic, artistic, social—more readily gleaned through observation rather than quantified on paper. Howard Gardner, Harvard professor of cognition and author of the seminal book Frames of Mind (1993), proposed this concept of multiple intelligences in 1983.

Processing and responding to our own and others’ social minds is often referred to as social intelligence or social cognition. Over the years we have met many people who are academically gifted but whose social minds are not fully developed. Many people find it confusing or have trouble accepting that those who are gifted academically can also be weak in their social thinking.

We are good observers of each other’s talents and challenges, but we are often the least kind to those who lack social gifts. We do not judge a person who doesn’t have natural athletic talent, but we often hear someone with social learning weakness described with isolating adjectives such as odd, weird, rude or arrogant—because this is how they are perceived.

These individuals face great frustrations. It is not uncommon to find that teachers, counselors, social workers and psychologists are not aware that people can be born with social learning disabilities, and therefore these helping professionals do not create appropriate supports or treatment. Instead they might encourage the person to just “be more social” or “behave better,” not realizing that this type of comment can do more harm than good to someone who does not intuitively understand what it all means.

This book is a primer about the social mind in the workplace. It teaches core concepts of how we think about our own and others’ thoughts and emotions.

Within these pages you’ll explore how the social mind works, how to “hang out” at lunch and better express your thoughts, and how to encourage others to support your personal and professional endeavors. You will also read about things like why work projects can fall flat—not because the ideas aren’t good, but because you may not have made the right impression when presenting your concept, or perhaps you failed to support a colleague’s idea at another time.

Along the way, you will learn about the dynamic and synergistic factors that help you to determine appropriate social behaviors by understanding the hidden rules of a situation, as well as what you know (or don’t know) about the people and their emotions within the situation. The process is complex and it requires social multitasking—social thinking—to encourage people to come back and interact with you again.

Most important, you will explore ideas and specific strategies that you can practice to help develop more “social muscle.” The social mind is constantly developing and updating its operating system. You upgrade to mature when your social mind works well with others, and to wise when you can successfully navigate the nuances and different mind-sets of others, especially people you perceive as being difficult to work with.

After reading this book, you’ll never think about making small talk or presenting your ideas in a meeting the same way again. Hopefully, you’ll learn how to regularly adjust your thinking and related social behaviors for increasingly successful interactions. With more social thinking tools at hand, you can make better choices when you’re around other people. As many adults who struggle with social issues are painfully aware, it is fine when you choose to be alone, but it is pretty upsetting or disheartening when no one chooses to be with you.


  • We are expected to be constantly aware of who is around us and anticipate what they plan to do in our shared space.
  • As important as the social mind is, we receive very little instruction about how to operate this complex piece of machinery.

“The incredible thing about the human mind is that it didn’t come with an instruction book.” — Terry Riley

“The act of compassion begins with full attention, just as rapport does. You have to really see the person. If you see the person, then naturally, empathy arises. If you tune into the other person, you feel with them.” —Daniel Goleman

This is an excerpt from Social Thinking at Work: Why Should I Care? by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke. Copyright © 2011

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