Social initiative: underrated but important

Right, it looks like I’ve gone back to writing about initiative again. Today I want to make the point that not all initiative is about starting your own business or organising a protest or doing something creative; social initiative is important too.

I’ve touched on the idea of social initiative very briefly before, in a story about two people who sat in silence because neither of them had the social initiative to start a conversation. But the concept deserves wider attention.

I think we’ve all had the horrible experience of being an unwelcome newcomer. You turn up somewhere, you don’t know anybody, and nobody talks to you. Nobody approaches you. It feels like hostility, but often it’s just a lack of social initiative. Nobody thinks it’s their job to talk to you, nobody wants to make the uncomfortable effort of talking to a new person, so they stay in their comfort zone with the people they already know.

It feels like a problem for you, but it’s actually a problem for the group. Because almost all groups – businesses, voluntary organisations, social scenes – benefit from having new people there who feel welcome and happy. The process of benefiting from new energy starts when you welcome someone. The process of conveying unspoken rules, so the new person can be a beneficial member of the group, starts when you welcome someone. The process of integration starts when you welcome someone. If your group can’t welcome new people because nobody thinks it’s their job, your group has a colossal problem.

My dad helps to run an amateur sports club. The club often gets visiting teams coming for friendly matches, and the other people who play or volunteer at the club are hopeless at dealing with them. No malice is intended, but my dad’s teammates huddle in the corner with their drinks. So my dad has unofficially taken on the job of welcoming the visiting teams, which does require courage: he has to leave the group huddled over their drinks and walk across to the strangers.

One of the counterintuitive things about initiative in general: it’s more about training and habit than you’d think. It’s not about reinventing the wheel. And it’s the same with social initiative. It starts when you realise it should happen, and it gets easier the more you do it.

My own experience of taking social initiative is that it’s fucking scary at first. You think “what the hell shall I say?” My advice: keep moving, keep smiling, just say something. I’d imagine that my dad probably just walks up to the visiting team and says something along the lines of “All right, boys? You found us OK, then?”

I’m no Oscar Wilde myself with my conversation-openers; it’s usually something along the lines of “Great to see you here,” or “What are you drinking?” or “God, it’s a bit cold today, isn’t it?”

And nine times out of ten, the other person will recognise the lifeline you’re throwing them. They don’t care if you’re pointing out the obvious about weather or traffic or the décor. They just see the smile and the intent to welcome and they appreciate it. They will grab that lifeline and before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going. And, again before you know it, other people are joining in, people who were terrified to make a move before.

A casual remark from a 1990s It-Girl (probably Tara Palmer-Tompkinson) got me thinking about this stuff in a systematic way. In an interview she described herself as “good at parties” and teenage-me had a lightbulb moment. It had never occurred to me before that socialising was a skill, a skill you could be good or bad at. Teenage-me had the “turn up and hope for the best” model of socialising fully internalised. That remark from a pampered socialite was the start of my thinking about social initiative, although I didn’t have a handy phrase for it at the time.

The next “aha!” moment came when I was studying mediaeval Welsh literature and came across the concept of the “ymdidan wraig”, or “conversation wife”. (Modern Welsh would spell it “ymdiddan”, I think.) Anyway, the idea is that it’s the nobleman’s wife’s job to welcome newcomers to the court, to go around with drinks, to get conversations going. The phrase is the basis of the rather forced multilingual pun in this blog’s tagline.

Of course women have been acting as social glue and conversation-starters for centuries; nothing exciting about that. What I love about the concept of the ymdidan wraig is that her work is explicitly acknowledged. Because today, it really isn’t acknowledged half as much as it should be. Yes, some wives still flit around pouring drinks and introducing people… but that work is usually ignored and unrewarded.

As a society we train ourselves to devalue this kind of work by pretending it’s unadulterated fun and not work for the person doing the work. In other words, we train ourselves to underrate social initiative. We decide that socialites are just bimbos, politicans are insincere, the barman who asks how you’re doing is nosy. (I’m not saying that those judgements are always incorrect; I’m just saying that we’re more likely to dismiss people when we don’t grasp the importance of the work they’re doing.)

Most of us don’t even grasp the concept of social initiative, which means that  when it’s lacking in a social situation, we misread the atmosphere as unfriendly or hostile. (Actually, if you build up your own social initiative you get a lot smarter at differentiating poor social skills from genuine hostility.)

I’d like to usher in a world where we understand what social initiative is, understand the power of conversation and communication, reward people for stepping forward and saying something. I’m tired of power-socialisers being written off as frivolous. I’m tired of seeing people with zero social skills benefit from the hard work of a power-socialiser and then use the relaxed atmosphere created by that person to mock them for being too talkative.

I’m not saying I’m a social genius myself; sometimes I absolutely can’t handle social situations and I’ll use weak coping strategies like drinking too much, clinging to my friends or hiding in the toilets. I’m just saying: when I do overcome the temptation to run away, I don’t want anybody writing me off as stupid just because I have the courage to get a conversation going.

Note: I’ve been writing this blog for nearly six years and nobody’s ever asked me what the tagline means. I hope that means you all just saw the joke first time and required no further explanation, but I suspect you just didn’t have the social initiative to ask. Ask me! I won’t say “no”. How could I?

Explore posts in the same categories: conversational tactics, cultural narratives

5 Comments on “Social initiative: underrated but important”

  1. OMM Says:

    Wages for housework, now wages for icebreakers!

    Thank you for the explanation. I kept confusing the tagline with Ymerodraeth State of Mind.

  2. […] refill those resources. (So not a trip to the pub with those friends who expect you to make all the social effort. Watch a film instead.) If you can’t be bothered to actually organise anything, take a tip from […]

  3. […] over, taking shit in order to keep the peace, managing other people’s feelings. That’s women’s work, […]

  4. […] to be trying too hard than not trying hard enough. Yeah, they probably don’t understand that social initiative is work, which is why they don’t seem to be bothering on that front. But they’re nervous and out of […]

  5. […] people make “bids” in other contexts too, not just romantic relationships. I’ve written in the past about social initiative, about the difficulty and importance and underratedness of making the first […]

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