Lacking social skills vs using social skills to hurt people

When someone is a jerk, they’re often pejoratively referred to as “lacking social skills”.

But being a jerk and having bad social skills are different problems. Learning stronger social skills won’t necessarily make someone a better person.

Jerks often have exceptionally strong social skills. Jerks use their social skills to hurt people effectively (and to get away with it.) Sometimes this involves performing stereotypes of social awkwardness — and being very careful to pick targets they can get away with hurting. If someone is hurting people on purpose because they want to, teaching them social skills won’t usually help. They have to change their values and decide to stop hurting people.

People who are jerks and want to stop being jerks may also need to learn new skills for interacting with people. But if someone is intentionally mean, lacking skills isn’t the primary problem.

At the same time, sometimes when people are hurting others, the problem *is* weak social skills. Some social mistakes can be really harmful. (Eg: Standing too close, not understanding privacy, not understanding the difference between different types of physical contact, not understanding which kinds of questions are considered sexual, saying slurs without realizing they’re slurs, etc.) When people are hurting others by accident, learning social skills can be really helpful.

Being a jerk is a different problem than having weak social skills, and it’s important to take the difference seriously. When someone is making social mistakes out of ignorance, the solution is often education and support. When someone is a jerk and wants to learn to be better, the solution often involves education and support. (A caveat here — the people who they’re hurting should *not* be expected to be the ones providing this support.)

When someone is hurting others on purpose because they want to, often the only solution is to deprive them of opportunities to hurt others. (Eg: by banning them from events or suspending their professional license or voting them out of office.). Teaching an intentionally cruel person social skills will not help, and can actually make the problem worse.

Tl;dr It’s obnoxious to use “bad social skills” as a way to insult jerks. Being a jerk is a different problem from having weak social skills. People with good intentions and weak social skills need nonjudgemental help. (From the community or a service provider; generally not from the people they’re inadvertently hurting.) When someone is intentionally mean, teaching them social skills isn’t likely to help — and being nonjudgemental is likely to make matters worse.