An authentic response is one which we generate without thinking. It’s a genuine response to how we’re feeling, what we know, what we’ve experienced in the past, what we’re expecting, what our abilities and current needs are, etc. It stems from who we are as individuals at that given moment in time. One person’s authentic response to a situation may be completely different than another person’s authentic response to the same situation. And in fact, one person’s authentic responses may change over time or with changed circumstances. Consider this: What would you do or say if you stubbed your toe while walking? That’s an authentic response—a genuine response to pain and surprise. Depending on the level of pain, or how tired or stressed you are, or your current favorite vocabulary for expressing pain and surprise, your authentic response may be different on one day than it is on another. But it’s not likely to be exactly the same as everyone else around you.
Sometimes, authentic responses work very well! If we’re alone at home and stub a toe while walking, that particular word we utter may work for us; it may make us feel a little better, even if it doesn’t exactly remove the pain. But if we utilize the same authentic response in other social contexts, for example, a crowded board room as members are gathered to review our performance, or walking into a crowded concert hall or theater after the performance has started, it’s not likely to work with the other people gathered around us, which in turn affects how they think about us and interact with us. We may respond authentically to a funny joke by laughing out loud. This may work effectively to get others to laugh along with us. However, if this happens in the middle of math class when we’re supposed to be listening to the teacher or working quietly on an assignment, it isn’t likely to be socially effective; in fact, it may get us into trouble! An authentic response used in the wrong social context is not likely to help us be socially effective!
A socially effective response is one which utilizes the strategies available to us, combined with an awareness and understanding of those around us, to choose a response that’s likely to work with the other people in our current social context.
I believe that in general, there are two basic types of social contexts. When using The Social Response Pyramid(TM) in my parenting and educating, I represent these with two shapes: a circle and a rectangle. These are not to be taken literally in terms of their shape; instead, they represent a type of interaction. The circular social context is when we are deliberately interacting with other people. This context occurs at the dinner table when family or friends are gathered to eat and converse, in class when a teacher is interacting with students, and in a staff meeting at a school, business, or organization. In this type of social context, people may more readily see the need to be thinking about others in the interaction, and responding in a way that works for both themselves and others. When we are truly alone, we are not being social, and therefore are not part of a social context. However, there are times when we may think we’re alone, without considering the fact that we’re actually part of another type of social context, which I represent with a rectangle. This is when we’re acting alone (in our bedroom doing homework when our family is downstairs, or walking through a shopping mall without talking to anyone), when in fact we’re surrounded by other people who we need to be thinking about to ensure that we can still be socially effective.
Notice that as I define it, a social context isn’t a physical location; it’s a type of interaction! In other words, it’s more about people than place. A circular social context can be found at school as four students are working on a group project, deciding what their topic will be, dividing up the work, coming together to discuss their results, etc. It can also be found when a cluster of students is gathered in the hallway to talk about what they did last night. A social context represented by a rectangle can also found at school, as students pass each other, walking through the halls toward their next class, or as they sit in study hall, each working on their own homework. (Note that there can be overlapping or co-existing social contexts; one or more circular contexts within a rectangular one, or some people interacting closely, with others sharing the same space, but not interacting with them.)
Obviously, people differ from one another in their ability to adequately “read” and respond effectively to the social context. One hallmark of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is that people with ASD struggle with this. Their challenges in the areas of executive functioning, theory of mind, emotional/social intelligence, boundary intelligence, gestalt processing, etc. create gaps in their ability to make necessary connections with others and experience social success. But they’re not the only ones who experience challenges and gaps in these areas! Although these “building blocks of social development” develop throughout our lives, different people develop them at different rates, and to different degrees. Our age, experiences, personality, abilities, preconceived ideas, sensory and other needs, and more, can all affect our understanding of the social context (and our connection to it) and our ability to produce socially effective responses.
Would you like more information about how we can increase understanding of social contexts? We have a variety of recommended resources on this site.
Fortunately, we all have the wonderful capacity to continue learning and growing. And we all have ongoing opportunities to better understand ourselves and others, and to continue working toward being socially effective!