Four ways our social skills are hidden, diminished or ignored

Every week multiple reports are published by governments, think tanks, academics, researchers, industry groups, and consultancies about labour market needs, workforce issues, and skill demands. Having read these reports for decades I’ve observed how language is used to maintain a narrative about the world of work and its needs, a reality that repeats themes, words and phrases to unequally position different skill sets.

My focus here is to highlight how skills language diminishes, hides and ignores the human skills needed to sustain lives and survive global threats. Restoring these skills to their rightful status is essential for our survival.

Despite numerous reports about the demand for care workers, threats to civil society, and the need for respectful relationships, social skills are repeatedly diminished or ignored by skills language. This created reality encourages us to see things primarily in terms of benign, all-important technology.

I’m not denying that there is some validity to these skills stories. What is vital is to understand the implicit distortions about social skills.

What are social skills?

Social skills refer to a diverse range of human abilities that help us get along with each other and deal with life’s challenges. They encompass communication, interpersonal, and emotional skills. Each of these covers many specific skills, although the boundaries are not always clear-cut. These skills are interrelated, draw on other skills (such as cognitive thinking) and are used in diverse contexts to solve problems.

Social skills are essential for our survival. For example, we have seen how the technical requirements, complexities and interrelated demands of social skills play out in crisis management during floods, bushfires and cyclones. Emergency management is complex, requiring collaborative relationships, extensive coordination, information sharing, risk management, clear, targeted and tailored information to those who need it, and to those at risk, engagement across sectors and jurisdictions, and continuous monitoring, review and evaluation.

Four ways social skills are hidden, diminished or ignored
1.      The ‘tech is tops’ narrative

Reports on technological developments are future-focussed and repeatedly describe them as revolutionary, transformational, disruptive, intelligent and agile, while ignoring or downplaying any downside, and the actual time it takes for some developments to be realised. In addition to giving primacy to technology-related skills, the complementary role social skills play in digital, data, cyber, and AI roles is largely downplayed or ignored. Yet analysis of role requirements for this work confirms that technical and social skills are needed to perform well.

We are told that work is getting more complex because of technology, but we don’t see comparable analysis of how this impacts on social skills, either in terms of skill demands or increased complexity.

2.      A focus on information sidelines social skills

Information is a rubbery term with multiple meanings, some of which relate to technology (e.g. information technology) and some relate to communicating (e.g. knowledge communicated, the act of informing). Information may be facts, data or opinions, and with context can be knowledge or even wisdom.

Many discussions about information cover issues like misinformation, disinformation, cyber security, AI, digital media platforms, free speech, defamation, and truth telling. Few address the interpersonal skills needed to address these issues. The UN Development Programme’s 2023/2024 Human Development Report, Breaking the Gridlock, Reimagining cooperation in a polarized world, asks why are we so stuck in addressing shared global challenges including climate change? A particular focus is how to dial down the temperature and push back on polarisation.

The report explores the nature of polarisation and how it impedes cooperation, particularly an us-versus-them thinking where compromise becomes a betrayal of principles rather than a necessary part of the democratic process. So long as we focus on information, we can be dismayed at the opinions expressed but ignore the subtle and sophisticated social skills needed to live with each other.

3.      The use of ‘soft’ skills downgrades and distorts social skills

Governments draw on consultancies, think tanks, researchers, and imported expertise, unthinkingly adopting skills terminology. A prime example is the term ‘soft’ skills. The specific problems with this term are that it is:

  • Imprecise: There is no agreed definition of what ‘soft’ skills are. Repeated use is not a sound reason for its continued use.
  • Inaccurate: Typically, ‘soft’ is used to refer to social/emotional skills, implying these skills are light-weight. Describing them as ‘non-technical’ or ‘intangible’ further implies, inaccurately, that they require little effort and no special knowledge.
  • Gender-biased: Research confirms that children form gender-based ideas about careers early in life and young people hold stereotyped views of many jobs. So-called ‘soft’ skills are not the preserve of girls and women, nor are they less demanding than other skills. We all need a diverse range of skills, regardless of career choice.
  • Employers don’t ask for ‘soft’ skills: Summaries of skills sought by employers may claim that they value ‘soft’ skills, but any scan of job advertisements shows that employers don’t actually seek ‘soft’ skills.
  • Based on a false binary: Labelling skills as either ‘soft’ or technical/’hard’ perpetuates a false binary that ignores the complexities and interrelatedness of skills. Communication, for example, is an umbrella term that encompasses many sophisticated skills and specialisations. Most jobs involve using specific verbal and/or writing skills, often in tandem with problem-solving, judgement, cultural awareness, ethical nous, and relevant knowledge.

‘Soft’ skills may seem like a handy conceptual shorthand, but it reduces complexity and stifles more nuanced analysis of how skills are interrelated and equally valuable.

4.      Our view of the care economy is distorted

The care economy is variously defined in reports, sometimes narrowly, sometimes more expansive. It’s a subject currently receiving much attention, but not the distortions of language.

In my article in Pearls & Irritations, Changing skills language to help save humanity, I set out how skills language distorts our view of the care economy.

We don’t value socially useful work like care work, considering it of low skill. Yet providing person-centred care requires sophisticated skills and knowledge. The Aged Care Royal Commission confirmed this in recommending that the industry look at qualifications and consider including several units of core competency concerning personal care and quality of life and wellbeing. (Recommendation 79).

Our largely unconscious cultural beliefs about what is and what is not valuable, reinforced by repeated skill narratives, moves critical social skills to the periphery.

Many skills reports are written by economists, with little input from other disciplines. Financial journalist and anthropologist Dr Gillian Tett advocates thinking like an anthropologist to help make sense of our world. She advocates a context-based, lateral vision that is aware of siloed thinking and sees the assumptions that blind us. While she’s thinking mainly of economists, this approach applies to all of us.

So, if you’re writing a report or article about social skills (communication, emotional, interpersonal skills), stop and think about how your language might be downplaying their importance. There are alternatives, including:

  • When discussing specific skills, use specific skill words, like communication skills, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills.
  • When grouping skills that relate to working with people, use social or interpersonal skills and use this term consistently.
  • When discussing or referencing other reports and research on skills, avoid adopting or repeating any use of ‘soft/softer’ skills (with or without inverted commas). Even saying “so-called ‘softer’ skills” keeps the term in circulation.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.