Hacking Social: Can IT and Developer Types Learn Charisma?

IT pros and developers are often stereotyped as lacking social skills--and some are paying thousands to gain them.

Caroline Marwitz

August 4, 2014

3 Min Read
Hacking Social: Can IT and Developer Types Learn Charisma?

As technology changes and job descriptions change too, social skills become more crucial to have. Even when less of our time is spent face-to-face and more is spent facing a computer or device, knowing how to start a conversation, in person or online, and how not to look like a jerk require social skills no matter whether it’s your lips doing the talking or your fingers doing the walking. And there’s no hiding in the server room or developer cave if you make a mistake.

In the past, IT pros and developers and engineers were granted a bye for their less-than-stellar social skills. But not anymore.  Do you remember how harshly Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was criticized for how he acted when he first was in the public eye?

Do you remember recently if he was criticized for that? No? Maybe it’s because he got a little help.

Social Outcast Becomes Science Experiment

One woman is being paid tens of thousands of dollars to help technology people learn to be social. Her name is Olivia Fox Cabane and she’s hacking charisma.

After being bullied as a teenager in France for not fitting in, Cabane escaped to college--where she was, finally, left alone. With what sounds  like an engineer’s “figure it out and fix it” mentality, she began to research social skills by reading everything she could get her hands on, from Dale Carnegie’s books on how to make friends to scientific studies on how emotions trigger facial expressions and what constitutes authenticity.

And she began to compile what in the technology world would be called best practices. In this case, best practices for being social.

The child of a chemist and a psychotherapist, Cabane turned herself into a science experiment. She noticed that she wasn't shy in starting conversations but small talk would wear her out. Her expressions would become tense and she'd get nervous and even start to sweat. But in other situations, such as those related to work, she wouldn't get as anxious and thus her body wouldn't exhibit as much tension either.

It Takes Three Skills

Analyzing her research, she broke down social interaction into three skills: technical, external, and internal.

Technical skills relate to one's level of intelligence. Unfortunately, being intelligent doesn’t mean you’re going to have good social skills. (But it does mean you can learn them.)

External skills have to do with the physical actions we take to show we care about others: using welcoming body language like a smile or handshake, for example.

Unfortunately, there’s no “fake it until you make it” with body language. According to Cabane, a Stanford study actually shows that faking a smile or other type of body language can make other people feel threatened.

That’s where the internal skills come into play. Internal skills are the emotional controls that allow a person to tolerate discomfort and not become anxious. It’s almost a kind of self-acceptance that enables a person to relax and become more authentic.

Think Puppies

So to get that inner feeling, what Cabane has clients do, among many other things, is to think of a situation where they'd typically feel confident and warm and kind. That internal feeling then supposedly causes the client to manifest more authentic external skills. Such as smiling and meaning it.

In other words, next time you're nervous in a social situation, imagine you're playing with a puppy.

Other techniques she’s developed to help her clients include relieving stress by imagining a benevolent force guiding their lives and overcoming painful experiences by rewriting them with an alternative ending that’s less distressing.

As one young male client says, “…her suggestions can be weird,” but “Thinking of puppies while I talk to people helps a lot.” (Read the entire article at Medium. )

What do you think? Do tech people need to be social? Can charisma be taught?


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