Entering a Group Already at Play

Goal: Awareness and skill at social boundaries.

Setting: When there is a question or issue about whether you are inside or outside of a group (such as an ongoing conversation at a party, or an informal work team on the job).

Background: The popular book Emotional Intelligence, by New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman (Bantam, 1995, paperback 1997), reviews modern research in psychology and related sciences on how the brain works, and what happens in social interactions -- including many practical findings on predictors of success or failure in work and in personal relationships. This book became a bestseller not only in the U.S. but in many other countries as well, including societies as diverse as Korea and Turkey.

In a section on children at play, Goleman noted "one of the more perilous moments in the life of a young child: being on the edge of a group at play you want to join. It is a moment of peril, one when being liked or hated, belonging or not, is made all too public. For that reason that crucial moment has been the subject of intense scrutiny by students of child development, revealing a stark contrast in approach strategies used by popular children and by social outcasts... What matters most for whether a child is accepted or not is how well he or she is able to enter into the group's frame of reference, sensing what kind of play is in flow, what out of place... The two cardinal sins that almost always lead to rejection are trying to take the lead too soon and being out of synch with the frame of reference... By contrast, popular children spend time observing the group to understand what's going on before entering in, and then do something that shows they accept it; they wait to have their status in the group confirmed before taking initiative in suggesting what the group should do."

One study found that even the most popular children are rejected about 25% of the time when they try to join a group already at play.

For more information, see the chapter "The Social Arts," especially the section "'We Hate You': At the Threshold", pages 122-124 of the 1997 paperback edition.

Practice: How to turn all this into a practice? Obviously there is no formula for being accepted into an ongoing group.

What can be done is to suggest some points to keep in mind when trying to enter a group (such as a conversation at a party). Here is an early draft of such a list:

(1) If being accepted by a particular group is vitally important to you, then do not use it for this learning exercise. Instead, start with groups that do not matter so much that you risk becoming emotionally paralyzed.

(2) Learn to be aware of whether or not it is appropriate to try and enter at all (remember that even the most popular children were often rejected). Sometimes people discuss personal or private matters even in public. And traditionally (especially in upper social classes) it may be taboo to speak unless one has first been introduced. For these reasons or others, the group in question may not be open to anybody (or at least not to any stranger) at that time.

(3) Before approaching a group, remember that you already know something about its frame of reference -- before the group even existed. This is because no group you ever approach will be an arbitrary, random collection of people; those at any business or social gathering already have something in common or they wouldn't be there together. Bring to mind what you already know about the group, before approaching it.

(4) Be aware that when you first try to enter a group, the process of learning its frame of reference, gracefully showing that you accept it, and building emotional connection, may require more attention than the substantive issues (business, etc.) you may want to discuss.

We will improve this list as we find new material. Suggestions are welcome.

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