Sunday, June 16, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Communication is key

The importance of fostering and maintaining social skills

Update : 23 Dec 2023, 03:48 AM

Pittsburgh, circa the 1980s. Once, a visiting government official-turned graduate student was invited to my friend’s house, where my friend’s wife prepared a delicious meal. The guest was quick to comment after taking the first gulp: “Oh, the rice is melted.” I looked at the face of the hostess; her beautiful face turned into sheer rage, but she managed to politely say, "sorry."

Once we were invited to a French colleague’s house for dinner in Singapore. After dinner, she served home-made apple pie, knowing my sweet tooth. It tasted kind of odd, but I kept quiet and just nibbled a bit. When our hostess tasted it, she recognized, as others quickly attested, that she had put salt instead of sugar. No wonder it tasted strange. Our hostess turned to me and said, “Habib is a perfect gentleman!”

Yes, I exhibited some social skills, and the source of that skill was common sense. What’s the point of embarrassing our host? After all, she prepared all the mouth-watering dishes that we enjoyed, and she goofed with the dessert. So what? Our host, a fine sociologist, is known more for her intellectual prowess than for her cooking skills.

As a college student, I remember reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which left an indelible impression on me. One of the lessons I learned is that praising is better than criticism. When you visit someone, find something that you can honestly praise. It is better to start a conversation with a compliment. And if you cannot praise, just keep quiet. Find some common ground that you can talk about.

Many moons ago in Bangkok, I was having lunch with Shaheen Anam at the UN’s ESCAP Office canteen, where two of her colleagues joined. Soon, a discussion emerged about whether one can eat rice and French fries at the same time, as one of the gentlemen had on his plate. The other gentleman argued that both are carbohydrates, etc. The discussion was impolite to begin with and turned ugly. Both those gentlemen lacked social skills badly. Yet both were serving at the ESCAP and were highly educated. Education is no guarantee of social skills. If you don't like double carbs, fine; keep your judgement and nutritional knowledge to yourself and don’t impose them on others.

What are social skills? Social skills are “abilities and competencies that enable individuals to interact effectively and harmoniously with others in various social situations.” Why do we need these skills? Because they are essential for building and maintaining relationships. “Social skills encompass a broad range of behaviours, including communication, empathy, active listening, cooperation, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence.”

Communication is key. In Kolkata a few years back, my daughter and I were at a shoe store. As the seller was wrapping her sandal in several bags, my environmentally-conscious daughter asked him not to wrap it but to put it in her bag. The gentleman was a little surprised and asked, “Didi, why didn’t you take the wrap?” My daughter gave a short lecture on environmental degradation and how we can help prevent it in a very friendly and convincing manner. The gentleman was so impressed and said that he learned so many new things that day. The entire conversation was polite, and both sides showed a good deal of social skills.

During the same Kolkata trip, a woman at the Victoria Memorial asked me if my daughter was a “topper,” an expression I was not very familiar with but common in India. It meant one tops the class in exams. She assumed based on the intellectual look of my daughter. Her husband, an IIT professor, was a topper and shared similar features. An interesting, friendly conversation ensued as we enjoyed tea at the canteen.

Such conversations between strangers are rare in Dhaka. Bengalis in Bangladesh are somewhat uptight and like to follow rules of status that discourage conversations between strangers. People in high positions try to assert their higher status by not indulging in small talk with others who they think are below their station.

Once on my way to Khulna by train, in a nearly empty first-class compartment, a fellow passenger, an engineer, asked me what I did. My reply: “teacher.” Where is your hometown? My reply: “Bagerhat.” Graciously, that was the end of the conversation.

The thought of social skills came to mind after a recent trip to an event where the host was decent and full of appreciation, but the hostess was too indifferent and did not “waste her consciousness on others,” a phrase I learned from Geoffrey Benjamin, an anthropologist. The lady not only did not greet us, she avoided eye contact studiedly, since sometimes a small exchange of smiles is better than a conversation.

You exchange a smile or make eye contact to recognize the other person. The lady simply did not want to recognize. But why? My theory is: Despite her good looks, she is highly insecure, or she is a snob, but mainly she lacks social skills. Someone should teach her; you do not lose your social status by exchanging greetings with a person who may not be in your class, but after all, he is an invited guest.

That lady needed a crash course on social skills. Come to think of it, the entire civil service and their spouses need a crash course on social skills. Perhaps, the entire nation.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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