Social Skills in Context, or How being a Professor is Kind of Like Being a Mafia Hitman
Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero was a fearsome Mafia hitman in New York in the 70s. According to an undercover FBI agent who knew him well, he was smart and savvy in underworld situations. He could walk into a restaurant where he knew no one, watch who talked to who, watch how they talked, and work out who was in the underworld, who received more deference, whether the restaurant was being extorted.
In other situations, a different story. The FBI agent, Joseph Pistone, was himself an incredibly perceptive observer (if he wasn’t, he’d have been murdered). He reports:
Of course I was immediately reminded of computer science research. In research situations, I think of myself as reasonably socially aware: I have a network of mentors, students, and collaborators; I can meet new colleagues and have interesting technical discussions; I can even navigate the occasional difficult conversation when the need arises.
But outside of work, I can be a bit more awkward, or at least that’s what my wife says.
We stereotype technical people as having low social skills, and I’ll admit knowing people who fully meet that stereotype. The Mafia hitman reminds us that social skills are context specific: you can be savvy in one type of situation, and clueless in another. “Social skills” aren’t a single skill, any more than intellectual skills are.
And the term implies something else. Social skills are skills. You can learn them. And it is in the interests of your career to do so.