Plagiarism and the Personality

Very little is new when it comes to social interaction. Your handshake, your humor, even your laugh, are probably culled from those around you. So why not make it completely explicit? The best way to gain social skills is to look to people who have them. Look, and then steal shamelessly. Don’t worry about being original, don’t worry about being creative; in fact, when you’re just starting out, chances are the things you think are unique (that crazy tall-tale, that special t-shirt), aren’t. When you’re comfortable with the rules and mores that govern how we interact, originality and creativity will follow.

My own starting point was a high school friend, two years my senior. He was a charismatic theater guy who won monologue competitions and took the lead role in all the school productions. Every day, I heard his voice over the intercom reading the morning announcements and cracking jokes. So I signed up to read the announcements along with him. During the months of October and February, we would arrive together in the school office, divide the messages about club meetings and sports games between us, and pass the telephone back and forth as we spoke into it, ushering in third period.

Your peers can teach you a great deal, sometimes without trying. We’re conscious of this in an academic and athletic sense, but rarely as it relates to social skills. From the friends with whom I played capture the flag, I gained a healthy irreverence and an understanding of why people socialize for its own sake. From my drama friends, I learned how to be outrageous, how to be ridiculous, how not to act as though I’d be held accountable for every stupid, offensive thing I said.

By the time I got to college, I was continually on the lookout for cool new insights. It was my gay friends who made me realize that being uncomfortable around women is not a property of maleness, but a consequence of attraction, and once you’ve realized that, being awkward with a pretty girl is no longer so inevitable. With help from my roommates, I improved my oft-criticized story-telling ability. And I made changes at a lower level as well. One of my first friends carried himself with great ease and possessed a deadly wink, which he used sparingly and to great effect. I don’t think I’d ever winked at someone before seeing him do it, but a well-timed wink is hard to beat.

Learning social skills from others doesn’t even need to be limited to the people of your age or acquaintance. Copy the best. Watch how Stephen Colbert harasses his guests yet maintains their good will. Watch how Justin Timberlake lands Scarlett Johansson at a club in his music video, “What goes around, comes around.” Pick out their special characteristics and make them your own. If someone has a clever greeting or a smooth flash of a smile, take it. It’s as good as yours.