Rebuilding Social Capital and Character

If, as many believe, we derive our basic character from our early life experiences, why do we talk these days in America about rebuilding character? If we need to rebuild character, we must have lost some of it on some focus on it. In fact, it’s pretty clear we have to reinvest in ourselves from time to time, or test ourselves on the issues underlying character.

When we work all the time and we pay less attention to and therefore diminish our social interactions, we lose track of our ideas about social norms and what that means. In fact it’s not unlike using our brains to solve simple math problems. Suddenly, we find out we can’t do simple math problems anymore—at least not easily. Social contacts, and the simple social interactions we have, can suddenly begin to go badly when we stop having them. When we do have them, we are often pressed into decisions we haven’t been making regularly and find them more difficult. Just like with math, if we don’t use our skills we lose them.

But unlike the math problem we can no longer solve, we’re forced into making simple social decisions. Indeed, we always forced to solve them, but not so with the math problem. Math is simpler to ignore. Maybe we’re less convinced than we used to be that we’ve made the right decision when we’re rusty in our social contacts. At best, what we’ve said may be uncharacteristic but it may be glossed over and nothing comes of it. At worst, we embarrass ourselves as we are corrected immediately and publicly. But, we can be in the middle of those two extremes. For example, you may say something that’s “out-of-character.” No one who hears what you’ve said says anything about it when it happens, but later in your absence friends look at each other and ask, “Did you hear what he said? Where did that come from?”

It seems to me to be pretty clear that our social skills are not permanently imprinted. It’s not as though they need to be constantly practiced, but they are, in effect, practiced enough if we maintain social contacts sufficiently. Indeed, they are always tested. We get feed back from others even if they don’t respond verbally with approval or non-approval. Usually, we don’t even notice them. These can be registered non-verbally as well. If we stop getting those responses we may become confused in our social interactions. If we get lost in other activities for a while, returning to direct human interactions may require at least a short period of readjustment. We have no other course other than to try to rebuild that capital as we come back into the world.

Some people who have been out of or away from their social world for a while may feel as threatened as others as they try to rebuild their relationships. Loss of social capital requires one to rebuild it as they realize that they are increasingly misunderstood. Some make the adjustment more quickly than others. Why?

Some may more reflective than others. They may talk a little more slowly as they chew on a thought, or perhaps they are journalers who constantly challenge their own ideas and write answers to many questions that have yet to come up in their social setting. If so, they are way ahead of the game. They are generally less inclined to make inappropriate remarks in social interactions. While they have not lost their character, they are rebuilding social capital and are perceived quickly to have rebuilt the character they had previously. It’s like he or she is simply back!

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