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Culture and Personality - Social Interaction

01 Sep 2012

All consequential human action takes place during social interaction. In private we spend time reviewing past interactions and planning future encounters that will further our personal goals. It is useful to reflect on what is needed to start and maintain an interaction. Every interaction has three essential components. The first is an agenda, a reason or pretext for the interaction. Agendas range from the trivial and informal (“Let’s get together and have a beer”) to the profound and formal (Security Council debates at the United Nations). Persons with position power and/or social skills are often able to control the agenda for interactions. The second major component of an interaction is roles to play; we can only interact with others in the context of roles—which provide essential structure and predictability. Consider the children’s game of jump rope—the game can only take place if there is some agreement about how to play (the rules), and if a child is available to fill the required roles of rope turner or rope jumper—the rules and the roles are essential for the game. Roles range from informal (guest at a cocktail party) to formal (bride in a wedding ceremony). As Sarbin (1957) pointed out, people differ in their ability to learn and play roles so that some people will be more successful in social interaction than others.

The final ingredient needed for an interaction is the rules for the game, ritual, or ceremony in which a person is involved. These rules are usually understood by the participants prior to the interaction, although they are often subject to negotiation (for example, the rules governing professional football games are periodically revised to enhance the crowd appeal of the games). The socialization process, which begins in infancy and continues thereafter, is largely about teaching people the requirements of various roles, and the rules that apply in various kinds of interaction. People who cannot learn the rules or the roles, who don’t honor the requirements of their roles, or who ignore the rules for the interaction put the integrity of the game at risk and may be asked to leave the interaction. Their reputation as players will spread quickly in the culture, and they may be denied access to participate in social life more widely.

As an example of this point, consider the interaction that is called a college lecture. The major agenda concerns students learning something from a lecturer.

Persons in the role of the lecturer are supposed to look and act in a certain way and discuss certain material; persons in the role of student are supposed to show interest in the lecture. Even small deviations from the norms (a male instructor wearing a red evening gown or a red wig, a student talking on a cell phone or not taking notes) will threaten to disrupt the interaction. Again, this speaks to how carefully regulated interactions tend to be, and illustrates how we invent rituals and scripts to meet our needs for social contact, status, and meaning.

Finally, every interaction is a kind of game, and after every interaction points are gained or loss. Specifically, as Wiggins (1996) notes, after every interaction, people gain or lose a little bit of status and gain or lose a little bit of acceptance. A person’s reputation, as expressed in terms of the FFM, is the result of the accounting that occurs after a life-time of interactions.

Robert Hogan and Michael Harris Bond
Hogan Assessment System and Chinese University of Hong Kong

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