Social Skills in Context, or How being a Professor is Kind of Like Being a Mafia Hitman

By Charles Sutton on June 1, 2018

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:

A lot of these wiseguys did not have the ability to move around the country. Once you got these guys out of New York City, they were like fish out of water.... As they schooled me in the mafia, I had to school them on how to make airline reservations. I am talking about a 49-year-old man, telling him how to make airline reservations to three different cities, with an open return, because we did not know what date we were going to return to New York City.
Joseph Pistone Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia

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.