Difference Between Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence

When you think of someone “smart,” your mind may go to IQ and school exam scores. However, evolutionary biology tells us the type of intelligence that really mattered for survival for millions of years was your social and emotional intelligence. Watch a few seasons of Game of Thrones to see how the characters stay alive, and you’ll understand what I mean. Or look at the type of boys that are most attractive in high school and you’ll see the remnants of that biological preference: it’s not the academically skilled nerds, it’s the socially skilled jocks (note: that’s a generalized trend. There are exceptions, like that socially popular, funny nerd you know.)

Now, what’s the difference between social vs. emotional intelligence?

I’ve often asked people who are socially skilled this question, and they usually say they are the same thing. That said, over the years, I’ve found through my own experience and discussions with new people that there is a distinct yet subtle difference. That’s because social skills are often domain-independent. Yes, there’s an overarching overall intelligence that you can carry to new situations, but there’s definitely a distinction. For example, I’ve seen people who can be very good at empathetically understanding and feeling the emotions of other people. However, they’re not the best at socially navigating a party or large social scene in an intelligent manner.

What is Social Intelligence?

To put it concisely, I found social intelligence to be more situational. It requires a certain set of skills such as:

  • situational awareness
  • contextual awareness
  • reading between the lines of what’s said or done
  • active listening
  • being able to pick up implications based on subtle body language (I use the word subtle in the sense that it’s subtle or unnoticed for a beginner, but not for an expert)
  • behavioral awareness
  • social calibration based on others’ behavior and signaling

I remember one person I know who was kind of ignorant and naive to social cues. He would hover around girls at a party without talking, not knowing it was creeping them out. He would fail to read between the lines that someone didn’t want to talk to him any longer so much so that another person had to point it out for him; he was so sure that wasn’t true that he argued until the person had to chime in and confirm it.

While empathy and various emotional intelligence skills carry through here. I feel like social intelligence has a bit more spatial and situational awareness. It requires social tact, body language reading, and implied reading of what’s not explicitly said out loud, making it distinctly different from EQ.

You can imagine in countries or eras where there was a lot less rules, more corruption, and a lot more illegal things happening under the table, this can be very important. Failing to decode what someone’s actually suggesting or not understanding the implications of an action can result in getting thrown in jail, death, or a loss of social/economic reputation.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EQ)?

I find this to be:

  • awareness of your emotions and being able to control and adjust them when they’re not optimal
  • accurate awareness of how others are feeling (easier said than done; many beginners guess wrong even though they’re sure they’re right)
  • emotional and social skill to user that empathy to create the best win-win or effective social situations and outcomes

While emotional intelligence benefits social intelligence and vice versa, there’s a distinction. A person can be empathetic and successful at a workplace manager-employee situation, but it’s really when they’re put into a new situation that pushes their social intelligence that we get to see how skilled they are in that department. When the boss doesn’t want you to talk but isn’t saying it explicitly, can you read the message? If someone is upset and showing it with their legs crossed, did you pick it up?

I feel like people who have great EQ usually have great social intelligence, but not always. I would argue that some people with good EQ don’t often have the street smart skills to do well in tense, socially layered situations. The latter is almost a skill that you have to acquire over time through experience and thoughtful analysis. Just blundering your way through those events without reflecting and improving afterwards won’t help either.

I believe out of ignorance and a lack of experience, many people lack social intelligence and street smarts. Is it a skill or is it genetics? I think it’s a bit of both. Some are naturally more skilled. But with the right thought, reflection, analysis, and coaching, you can get better. I can’t imagine the ignorant, socially-inept engineer types I’ve met to be able to get better on their own without some feedback since they’re often so ignorant that they don’t have the self-reliance to detect what they did wrong or figure out how they could’ve done better. Typically, a group is girls will just walk off rather than point out what you did wrong in your approach.

Which Is More Important?

Both are very important and should be developed. If I had to choose, I’d argue social intelligence is more important because it’s more tactical and applicable, involving various skills in larger fields with group dynamics. But that’s debatable. That said, I think social intelligence takes the cake since it is kind of like chess in the sense that you’re better off thinking more than one move ahead. People I’ve seen who are socially stupidĀ  often are playing “one move at a time,” usually out of ignorance. For instance, let’s say someone gets invited to a high-value man’s exclusive social event. This person isn’t that socially smart, so he’s just happy to be there and does what he feels, which means hitting on every single girl at the venue. He is completely unaware of any possible negative repercussions of this. His neuroticism level is at a zero.

The host, the high-value man, is quickly put off by this. He can tell its blowing off and turning off the people there because this guest is being too aggressive with it. He even sees the guest hit on his girlfriend. The repercussions are subtle, but strong. The guest gets cut off from any future invites; those invites could’ve lead to a lot more career and social opportunities. In fact, in this example, the guest may be so ignorant that he doesn’t even understand or realize what happened or why it happened.

That may be a bit of an extreme example, but variations of these stories happen all the time in real life. You may be thinking, “I’m not going to any high-level events, so none of this applies to me.” Not the case, I’ve encountered various normal social situations when a lack of EQ or social intelligence has repercussions. I know someone who has a boss who is not that socially calibrated; I’m told this boss has a lack of awareness at social events, often getting too creepy or talking about things for too long that his staff don’t care about or that make them uncomfortable. Imagine that happening to you and what affect that has on your perception and career! The worst part is this boss is unaware of it. Another normal example is when a new coworker or boss isn’t calibrated with his body language and touch. I’ve heard of cases where someone acts too familiar or touchy feely with someone they just met in a workplace setting in an attempt to create rapport or familiarity when it doesn’t exist. When done wrong, the others react by talking amongst themselves about how awkward or uncomfortable it made them feel.

So, best of luck as we all improve our social/emotional intelligence. This is the key to improving your success, performance, friendships, relationships, and social networks in life.

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By Will Chou

I am the the founder of this site and I am grateful you are here to be part of this awesome community. I help hard-working Asian American Millennials get rich doing work they love.

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