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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

interpersonal skills

(1980’s | therapese | “diplomacy,” “social graces,” “courtesy,” “tact”)

This staple of job descriptions started to appear in the psychological literature during that magical decade, the 1960’s. (“Interpersonal” is much older.) An irresistible example from Laycock and Munro’s “Educational Psychology” (1966): “Probably the most important problem in the world today is that of improving interpersonal and intergroup skills.” Somewhere around 1980, the phrase began to turn up in the mainstream press; even at that early stage, it was frequently associated with employment, touted as an asset valued by employers even if not directly expressed on a resumé. Here is an instance where the business world acted as a megaphone for psychological jargon, rather than the usual popularizers: religion, education, and the arts. Yet the expression also comes readily to hand in talk of relationships and can be used in a range of contexts — the rise of autism in recent years has given it another boost. Its formal, bureaucratic tone makes it perennially useful in situations where one wants to sound fair, or at least neutral. “He’s an asshole” still doesn’t sound right on an employee evaluation, but “he has poor interpersonal skills” fills the bill. “People skills,” the country cousin of this phrase, started showing up a decade or so later; now it has a following of its own. “Soft skills” is another rough synonym. “Leadership skills” is not, precisely, but many leadership skills turn out to be of the interpersonal variety.

I’m still not quite sure whether there’s a difference between “interpersonal skills” and “communication skills.” My initial reaction would be to say that the one is a subset of the other, but when I try to come up with a specific interpersonal skill that isn’t some sort of communication skill, I can’t. N.C. State’s student health center breaks it down into four broad categories: communication, assertiveness, conflict resolution, and anger management. Only the last might not be considered a communication skill, though I would argue that it is an essential prerequisite. Here’s a longer list of interpersonal skills, and a still longer one; nearly all the traits listed directly involve communication. In business, “communication skills” sometimes is a code word for “literacy” (thanks, Liz!), but it is commonly used to talk about face-to-face interaction as well.

“Skill,” at any rate, is enjoying a good run in the social sciences as the word for “useful behavior,” whether learned or innate. “Coping skills” and “life skills” are other examples, among a multitude. It’s almost impossible to imagine a job description that doesn’t demand good interpersonal skills. What noble employer out there will take on the inflexible, inattentive, robotic, rude, slouchy, dense, passive-aggressive, cold-hearted, self-absorbed, and clueless? They have to eat, too.

This phrase can be used in a general, or naive, way, but it normally has a none-too-subtle subtext. Interpersonal skills are in demand wherever there are difficult people to deal with. It can go either way. You may need advanced interpersonal skills because you work with difficult people, or you may be lamenting the absence of interpersonal skills among the difficult. Thus, techies, engineers, doctors, and other terrifying experts are chided regularly for their lack of interpersonal skills and encouraged to develop them through rigorous training, since it is obvious that they will never develop them from within. When advice columnists talk about interpersonal skills, they’re usually answering a question about an unreasonable office colleague. It’s not just a matter of being friendly and nice. Interpersonal skills are prized because they neutralize troublesome people, paving the way for settling disputes and winning battles.

This expression marks the third in an unintentional series, following “win-win” and “play well with others,” and is closely related to the latter. One way to get at the difference between them is to ask the question, “Is my goal to get along or to get my way?” The former is more like playing well with others, but interpersonal skills have more to do with getting what you want, even if all you want is to finish a group project without bloodshed. Assuming you’re competent and effective most of the time, deliberate use of interpersonal skills is inevitably a form of manipulation.


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