Remember that time a few years ago when you were in a Nepalese restaurant and everyone was speaking Newari and you didn’t speak a word Newari at the time and it sounded like gibberish and you totally zone out? (Thanks to Wikipedia for helping me to find a language that nobody ever heard of.)
For those not versed in people skills, interacting with new people may feel like listening to Newari. But, after you learned a few words of Newari, the official language of Nepal (btw), You enjoyed going into the restaurant so you could try out what you had learned.
People skills are like learning a new language and a new culture although it’s by no means actually new to you because you’ve at least observed it and probably taken part in it from birth. Perhaps you’d never felt confident with people before or you thought it was frivolous like trying to be popular in high school. But relating to others in an honest manner is a worthy pursuit.
Let’s examine a basic computer network. It may be complicated but setting it up is relatively easy. You wire together computers, peripherals, servers, hubs, Internet, etc. – give them all a common language with which to speak to each other and voila, you’re in business. Every single time one computer relays a certain command, the other machines in the network will react in exactly the same way.
Connecting people is not so easy, especially if you don’t know the “human protocols”. We may share a verbal language but there is no common emotional and social language. The people world is chaotic, each individual is thinking his or her own thoughts, has their own desires, wants, fears. What may be a good thing to you is bad to someone else. You might say something that is meant as a good thing and for some reason, the person you’re communicating with takes it as a bad thing. It’s very different from the regularity of machines, that’s why geeks without interpersonal skills are so bad at interacting with people. Why is it that can you say something to someone on Monday and then say it again on Tuesday and they react in an entirely different way? Why is it that something that Bill thought was funny is offensive to Sally? People are strange and unpredictable.
This is a tough nut to crack for engineers and tech types because much of their work is based on creating models or working to models. A model, by it’s very nature, implies predictability. An event will occur in the same manner every time. You build a bridge to withstand X, Y, and Z stresses. If any one of X,Y and Z or a combination thereof occurs, that bridge will not fall down. It’s about repeatability. The interaction of two or more human beings does not have this same predictability.
Models could be created for human interactions but they’d so general as to almost be irrelevant. Usually, if I walk into a room and smile at someone and introduce myself, the other person will smile back and introduce him or herself and we’ll shake hands. But there have been plenty of times when I’ve done this exact thing and the object of my introduction will simply turn and walk away. Maybe his mother had just died. Maybe he was desperately looking for a bathroom. Maybe he just didn’t like the look of me. It’s incredibly unpredictable and for those who are used to repeatable models, it can be frustrating.
You don’t really have to become an expert if you remember and practice the basic rules of human interaction — observe, listen, acknowledge.