Put your hand up if you think you have poor social skills? If you just raised your hand, I've got some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news is, maybe you do. The good news is, you shouldn't rely on your own appraisal of your social skills to determine this; in other words, your social skills are probably better than you think they are. If you were feeling dramatic (which I am) you might call this the social skills delusion.
In the past, people with social anxiety were thought to be suffering from weak social skills. This makes intuitive sense: if you have poor social skills, interactions don't go well, you don't create the impression you want to create, so you become anxious about future interactions. But cognitive models have challenged this idea, suggesting that socially anxious people are suffering from a cognitive illusion, rather than a social skills deficit.
In one study, researchers took two groups of 33 individuals; one socially phobic, one nonclinical control group. They subjected these unfortunate individuals to one of the scariest situations the human race has come up with - public speaking. A 3 minute speech had to be given, with only 2 minutes to prepare. After all was said and done, the researchers compared self-ratings with observer ratings of the speeches. The result? Both groups rated their own performance worse than the observers did - but the social phobics, as you might expect, were a little harder on themselves. (1)
In another study, Strahan and Conger used an almost equally nerve-wracking scenario - the job interview. Public speaking, job interviews... I hear in the next study they are having participants recount the third act of Hamlet while bungee-jumping off a bridge. I'm joking of course; presumably they're using stressful situations to make the results more measurable. They compared two groups again - both nonclinical this time, but with low and high social anxiety, and found that high levels of social anxiety had no negative effect on interview performance. (2)
Children aren't exempt from the illusion, either. After a conversation with an unfamiliar adult, high and low social anxiety children rated their performance in different areas related to the conversation. The adult then rated the children on the same areas. As it turned out, the adults were unable to tell which were the high and which were the low anxiety children - but the anxious kids thought they appeared more nervous than they actually did. (3)
This is all pretty good news for me: maybe my Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions are going down better than I thought! The bottom line seems to be that, before socially anxious people start taking social skills courses and picking up a copies of How to Make Friends and Influence People, they should try fixing these maladaptive beliefs about their own social performance.
This has implications for the treatment of social anxiety, which in the past had been focused on social skills training. One paper recommended CBT as a technique to address social anxiety based on the cognitive model - when the belief is fixed, the anxiety may reduce.
So if you're worried about the impression you make on other people, relax; you might be making a better impression than you think.
(1) Rapee, R. M.&Lim, L. (1992). Discrepancy Between Self and Observer Ratings of Performance in Social Phobics. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 101(4), 728-731.
(2) Strahan, E.,&Conger, A. J. (1998). Social anxiety and its effects on performance and perception. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 12(4), 293–305.
(3) Cartwright-Hatton, S., Tschernitz, N., Gomersallc, S. (2005) Social anxiety in children: social skills deficit, or cognitive distortion? Behaviour Research and Therapy 43, 131–141