While you may not know what makes someone socially intelligent, you have likely experienced the kind of social tone-deafness that leaves you feeling frustrated at best, and physically uncomfortable at worst.
Manners are cultural social intelligence. Yet, it seems traditional "politeness" is beginning to lose its appeal - it can conjure images of washing out your personality in favor of more uniform behavior. While we want to be able to engage with people in a mutually comfortable way, we shouldn't have to sacrifice genuine expression in favor of a polite nod or gracious smile. The two are not mutually exclusive.
People who are socially intelligent think and behave in a way that spans beyond what's culturally acceptable at any given moment in time. They function in such a way that they are able to communicate with others and leave them feeling at ease without sacrificing who they are and what they want to say. This, of course, is the basis of connection, the thing on which our brains are wired to desire, and on which we personally thrive.
Here, the core traits of someone who is socially intelligent:
1. They do not try to elicit a strong emotional response from anyone they are holding a conversation with.
They don't communicate in such a way that aggrandizes their accomplishments to incite a response of awe, or exaggerates their hardships to incite a response of sympathy. This usually occurs when the topic in question is not actually deserving of such a strong response, and therefore makes others uncomfortable because they feel pressured to fake an emotional reaction.
2. They do not speak in definitives about people, politics or ideas.
The fastest way to sound unintelligent is to say "This idea is wrong." (That idea may be wrong for you, but it exists because it is right to someone else.) Intelligent people say "I don't personally understand this idea, or agree with it." To speak definitively about any one person or idea is to be blind to the multitude of perspectives that exist on it. It is the definition of closed-minded and short-sightedness.
3. They don't immediately deny criticism, or have such a strong emotional reaction to it that they become unapproachable or unchangeable.
Some of the most difficult people to be in relationships with are those who are so threatened by even the slightest suggestion that their behavior is hurtful that they actually end up getting angry at the person suggesting it, reinforcing the problem altogether. Socially intelligent people listen to criticism before they respond to it - an immediate emotional response without thoughtful consideration is just defensiveness.
4. They do not confuse their opinion of someone for being a fact about them.
Socially intelligent people do not say "He's a prick" as though it is fact. Instead, they say: "I had a negative experience with him where I felt very uncomfortable."
5. They never overgeneralize other people through their behaviors. (They don't use "you always" or "you never" to illustrate a point.)
Likewise, they root their arguments in statements that begin with "I feel," as opposed to "you are." They do this because choosing language that feels unthreatening to someone is the best way to get them to open up to your perspective and actually create the dialogue that will lead to the change you desire.
6. They speak with precision.
They say what they intend to say without skirting around the issue. They speak calmly, simply, concisely and mindfully. They focus on communicating something, not just receiving a response from others.
7. They know how to practice healthy disassociation.
In other words, they know that the world does not revolve around them. They are able to listen to someone without worrying that any given statement they make is actually a slight against them. They are able to disassociate from their own projections and at least try to understand another person's perspective without assuming it has everything to do with their own.
8. They do not try to inform people of their ignorance.
When you accuse someone of being wrong, you close them off to considering another perspective by heightening their defenses. If you first validate their stance ("That's interesting, I never thought of it that way...") And then present your own opinion ("Something I recently learned is this...") and then let them know that they still hold their own power in the conversation by asking their opinion ("What do you think about that?") you open them up to engaging in a conversation where both of you can learn rather than just defend.
9. They validate other people's feelings.
To validate someone else's feelings is to accept that they feel the way they do without trying to use logic to dismiss or deny or change their minds. (For example: "I am sad today." "Well, you shouldn't be, your life is great!")
The main misunderstanding here is that validating feelings is not the same thing as validating ideas. There are many ideas that do not need or deserve to be validated, but everyone's feelings deserve to be seen and acknowledged and respected. Validating someone's emotions is validating who they really are, even if you would respond differently. So in other words, it is validating who someone is, even if they are different than you.
10.They recognize that their "shadow selves" are the traits, behaviors and patterns that aggravate them about others.
One's hatred of a misinformed politician could be a projection of their fear of being unintelligent or under-qualified. One's intense dislike for a particularly passive friend could be an identification of one's own inclination to give others power in their life. It is not always an obvious connection, but when there is a strong emotional response involved, it is always there. If you genuinely disliked something, you would simply disengage with it.
11. They do not argue with people who only want to win, not learn.
You can identify that this is the case when people start "pulling" for arguments, or resorting to shoddy logic only to seem as though they have an upper hand. Socially intelligent people know that not everybody wants to communicate, learn, grow or connect - and so they do not try to force them.
12. They listen to hear, not respond.
While listening to other people speak, they focus on what is being said, not how they are going to respond. This is also known as the meta practice of "holding space."
13. They do not post anything online they would be embarrassed to show to a parent, explain to a child, or have an employer find.
Aside from the fact that at some point or another, one if not all of those things will come to pass, posting anything that you are not confident to support means you are not being genuine to yourself (you are behaving on behalf of the part of you that wants other people to validate it).
14. They do not consider themselves a judge of what's true.
They don't say "you're wrong," they say "I think you are wrong."
15. They don't "poison the well," or fall for ad hominem fallacy to disprove a point.
"Poisoning the well" is when someone attacks the character of a person so as to shift the attention away from the (possibly very valid) point being made. For example, if a person who eats three candy bars a day says: "I don't think kids it's healthy for children to eat too much candy each day," a socially intelligent person wouldn't respond: "Who are you to say!" They would be able to see the statement objective from the person who is saying it. Usually, it is people who are most inflicted with an issue that are able to speak out on the importance of it (even if it seems hypocritical on the surface).
16. Their primary relationship is to themselves, and they work on it tirelessly.
The main thing socially intelligent people understand is that your relationship to everyone else is an extension of your relationship to yourself.