The Foundation of Our Social Chemistry

The fundamental building block of social relationships is reciprocity. It is the currency of social exchange. This led renowned sociologist Howard Becker to argue that our species should be renamed Homo reciprocus. If we walk into a social exchange thinking about what we can get out of the exchange, rather than what we can give, we have the equation backward.

Giving can also be an effective way of overcoming resistance to building a network, because it invokes positive moral sentiment. Giving creates a warm glow or a helper’s high. Functional MRI scans show that when we give, the same reward-processing areas of your brain that are activated when you eat ice cream or receive money light up. These positive emotions can override the negative sentiments that make networking feel dirty. Plus, it is just a nicer way to interact.

 

Physical Proximity Still Matters

Although technology is bringing us together in unprecedented ways, geography still plays a major role in defining the contours of our social networks. A study that used wearable sensors to investigate patterns of interaction among employees at two firms confirmed just how strong the effect of propinquity remains—close to half of all interactions occurred among employees sitting next to each other, an additional 30 percent were among employees in the same row, while the majority of the remainder were among colleagues on the same floor. This was true for email communication as well as face-to-face interaction. Despite the world becoming increasingly global, it turns out our social lives remain extremely local.

 

Where Should You Go?

When people are considering how to develop a network, far too often the focus is on whom you know. Popular culture advises us to seek out connections with key individuals, to try to get to know the magical person who will launch our careers or become our life partner. That is a mistake. A much more productive perspective to take is to think about where you go. Being thoughtful about how you allocate your time in social space—do you sit at a long table or take the two-seater in the corner? choose the cul-de-sac or the high-rise?—paves the way to the strongest network. It’s not so much whom you know that matters, it is where you go.

 

Expansionists, Brokers and Conveners: Know Who You Are

Most people end up as a broker, convener, or expansionist without even realizing it. Worse yet, they wake up lonely at seventy and wonder what happened. Whether the decisions have been made consciously or through a combination of habit, psychological tendencies, and circumstance, our networks are social signatures.

  1. Expansionists favor weak ties, have vast interaction spaces, and expend most of their social effort meeting new people. They also have an easier time ending relationships, because their investments don’t have a lot of reciprocal obligations.
  2. Brokers have some strong ties, but the strength of their network comes from their weak ties. Their interaction spaces typically revolve around many social worlds. Brokers spend a good deal of time maintaining weak ties. Without continued investment, the weak ties they do have easily disappear.
  3. Conveners prefer strong ties and devote most of their effort to maintenance. They don’t spend a lot of time exploring multiple social worlds but tend to have deep roots in a few.

 

Six Necessary Partners

One study found that executives who were consistently in the top 20 percent of company rankings of well-being and performance had networks with a very specific set of characteristics. They typically have a core network of twelve to eighteen contacts and with six kinds of critical connections.

At least one person within their inner circle offers:

  1. Access to information
  2. Formal power
  3. Developmental feedback
  4. Personal support
  5. Sense of purpose
  6. Help with work/life balance

It’s possible that one person within their circle played multiple roles. The key is that they didn’t fulfill all those roles by themselves.

 

Playing the Staring Game

What is the optimal duration of eye contact? When people encounter strangers in malls, in hotel lobbies, or on the sidewalk and glances are exchanged, they are usually short. People feel most comfortable with roughly three seconds of eye contact. Any shorter and you seem shifty. Any longer and you may come across as overly intimate or domineering.

People are two to three times more likely in a conversation to initiate eye contact when they are listening than when they are speaking. When people are discussing intimate matters, there tends to be less eye contact. People look at each other more when they are cooperating than when they are competing.

The rule of thumb is this. Look into someone’s eyes, but don’t look for too long. The psychologist Giovanni Caputo found that ten minutes of mutual gazing in low illumination can lead people to lose their connection with reality. It also produces odd sensations.

 

The First Duty Is to Listen

Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of the other person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart . . . Even if he says things full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable to continue to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, with compassion, you give him or her a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him or her to correct his perception, and then you wait for another time. But for the time being, you just listen with compassion and help him or her to suffer less .

 

Touching Accelerates Connection

The right kind of touch—whether a caress, a cuddle, or a clasp of a hand—feels good, can create synchrony with those around us, and eases pain.

Getting touch right, even for the empathic, is surprisingly complicated from a biological and neurological perspective. A soft caress feels like a soft caress only if it is applied at the right speed with just the right amount of pressure. Too slow, and it feels like a bug crawling. Too fast, and it’s superficial. The perfect touch according to neuroscience? “Warm skin, . . . moderate pressure, [and] moving at one inch per second.”

Of course, context also matters. In Italy, you are likely to see people greeting one another with a hug and a kiss (maybe even two). In Japan, there is a bow and no physical contact. Over the course of an hour a study found pairs in coffee shops in England didn’t touch at all. In the United States, people were relatively touchy-feely. They touched twice. In Paris, there were 110 points of contact in an hour.

 

What Holds A Team Together?

Psychological safety is a climate in which people feel safe to speak up and take interpersonal risks. It isn’t about friendship or liking one another, it is freedom from interpersonal fear. It is a shared feeling that exists in the group, not something an individual has. When team members feel that they can take risks in their team, they can bring up problems and tough issues, people on the team don’t undermine their efforts, they can make mistakes without its being held against them, they can ask for help, and their skills and talents are valued, teams have psychological safety.

Recommended Reading: The Culture Code: The Secrets of Successful Groups


 


Kyaw Wai Yan Tun

Hi, I'm Wai Yan. I love designing visuals and writing insightful articles online. I see it as my way of making the world a more beautiful and insightful place.