My social intelligence is a lot higher than it used to be.  I still wouldn’t say that I’m “good with people.”  But in my youth, I was truly inept.  In junior high, I had one real friend, and many overt enemies.  Since then, I’ve at least managed to claw my way up to mediocrity.

A lot of social intelligence is in details and practice.  If I could travel back in time and spend five minutes advising myself, though, here are the principles I would try to teach myself.

1. Good conversation is an exchange.  The most basic form of social ineptitude is to say what’s on your mind,
even though you have no reason to believe your listeners are
interested.  Even more cloddish: Saying what’s on your mind, even
though you know that your listeners are not interested. 

In a useful conversation, in contrast, there is a double coincidence of wants.  You have to be interested in what I have to say; I have to be interested in what you have to say.  This is an important reason why people with conventional interests seem more socially intelligent.  Even if they don’t check whether their audience cares, it probably does.

I imagine that my teenage self would immediately object, “But no one‘s interested in what I have to say.”  My two replies: (1) If that’s true, it’s still better to keep your thoughts to yourself than antagonize people you’re going to see repeatedly.  (2) People will be much more interested in your thoughts if you make marginal adjustments in topics and presentation.

2. Be friendly.  It’s not just good advice for libertarians; it’s good advice for people.  A strong presumption in favor of kindness and respect almost never hurts you, and often helps you.  Note that I say “presumption.”  Don’t “wait and see” if people deserve friendly treatment.  Hand it out first, no questions asked.  You will make friends (very good), avoid making enemies (good), and occasionally show undeserved kindness and respect (only mildly bad).

3. Keeping friends is more important than getting your way.  You should think twice before asking anyone for help.  If you still think it’s a good idea, try to make your request easy to refuse.  “How would you feel about…” is much better than “Please, please just do me this one favor!”  In the short-run, of course, the pushy approach is often effective.  But life is a repeated game, pushing leads to resentment, and your relationships are more valuable than almost any specific victory.

The world often perceives economists as low in social intelligence.  Maybe we are, but there’s no reason for it to be that way.  The insight that good conversation is an exchange should come naturally to the economically literate.  A policy of blanket friendliness ought to make sense to anyone familiar with weakly dominant strategies.  And once you realize that asking for help is an implicit intertemporal trade, the wisdom of restraint and delicacy is easy to see.

Admittedly, if your social intelligence has always been high, my recommendations will strike you as obvious.  If they’re so obvious, though, why do so many smart people act like don’t know them?