Stereotypes simplify social situations. Old person wise, young person foolhardy; tall person better basketball player, guy with pocket-protector better with computers; and policeman good, robber bad (or vice versa, depending on your perspective). Imagine all the hard work you'd have to do if you sincerely evaluated every individual you encountered, well, individually. So stereotypes serve as shortcuts for the socially lazy. But as my grandma used to say, "Anything worth doing is hard."
While stereotypes may have some granules of truth at their core, so much context informs human interaction that split-second judgments can do a lot more harm than good. It might be a nearly insurmountable task to evaluate and relate to each person one encounters, but it's worth the effort, particularly when trying to form significant relationships.
Of course today many of our human interactions are intermediated by the Internet. The promise of social networking tools is more than words on a screen, though; it is community building, a concept enjoying a renaissance due in part to the growing popularity of wikis and blogs. Yet despite the latest crop of Web-enabled social tools, few people think that technology increases sociability, according the "The Tech-Captured Life," a Roper Reports 2005 survey. In fact, 46% of "influentials" and 36% of all of those surveyed believe that computers and technology make people less sociable. I wonder if sociability was defined or examined as part of the survey? While it commonly means "marked by or affording occasion for agreeable conversation and conviviality," in business, social activity generally takes on a more goal-oriented meaning, as in "social networking."
If we look at the latter, the Web affords us a wider circle of interaction, but width is only one dimension to consider; depth is another. Chat rooms and multi-author blogs allow for feedback, comments, threads, etc.—but remain linear in nature, lacking true interaction. The Web does offer a veil of anonymity, or at least protection from the superficial stereotyping that goes on when people know what you look like or where you came from. In many ways, however, a words-only Web-based persona remains one of the barriers to true social interaction. While we can reach more people, so much of what we communicate falls out of context, if not from supporting or originating ideas, then from the context of the one communicating and that of the individual receiving it at any given moment. While bios, bodies of work, and even avatars may provide us with the projection of an identity, communication is give and take, much of it in the eye of the recipient.
To interact socially, we must be aware of and understand our audience—at least the intended or target audience—in order to model our message for effective reception. Unfortunately, this isn't something we've mastered in person, much less online, according to Karl Albrecht, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (www.karlalbrecht.com). He says that for years now, business educators have bandied about terms like communications skills, interpersonal skills, and people skills, with no substantive definition of terms or expectations. "Traditional platitudinal definitions of interacting skills have limited our understanding of social intelligence as a broader concept," Albrecht writes, "and have led many people to settle for clichés instead of seeking a more robust operational model."
At the same time, Albrecht uses a pretty clichéd stereotype to simplify one point, in the form of Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoon character, to offer "a valuable window into the social dynamics of an important subculture of the Western business world—the ‘techies.'" The author points out that "these people design the Web pages and computer screens we see . . . we need to understand them, and figure out how to integrate them more successfully into the social structures of our world." He also says that many technically inclined students choose careers in which they anticipate working with things, not people, and their educational experiences do not prepare them for explaining their ideas to others.
Albrecht might be headed a bit off course here. Perhaps it was the beguiling simplicity of his Dilbert example that allowed him to maintain the belief that techies remain a marginal group in our society. I find a lot of techies taking on a hip veneer as technology becomes evermore intertwined with what we love and that an ever-increasing number of professionals (and probably almost all of those about to graduate from high school, if not B-school) communicate via technology. If this is the "evolution" of communication, then it appears we may need to examine not only our definition of social interaction, but our techniques for evaluating and developing social intelligence.
Without a doubt, Albrecht's efforts to single out social intelligence as a measure of overall success (in light of a multiple intelligence theory, which combines abstract, social, practical, emotional, aesthetic, and kinesthetic intelligence) are laudable, particularly as he suggests that social intelligence is not simply innate, but can be fostered in our educational system and the workplace. I also very much like the author's idea of communication empathy, which adds to the usual connotation of identifying with another person to appreciate or share feelings at the level of depth—the sense of connectedness—that inspires people to cooperate. Depth, connectedness, and inspiration: things we cannot get enough of inside the enterprise or out, online or off.