I make no apology for the title of this week’s Blog.  It’s a concept described in detail in Karl Albrecht’s excellent book “Social Intelligence” (possibly my read of the year in 2008).  It’s actually a phrase coined by Edward Hampton, who describes it thus:

“Some people have a knack for saying something so inappropriate, inconsiderate, or crude, showing so little appreciation for the immediate context, that it’s the social equivalent of passing gas in church, or at a wedding or a funeral.  I call it a “social fart.” 

I was re-reading the book recently in preparation for a course in Emotional Intelligence, and it got me thinking about my own Social Intelligence and how well I apply it.  It brought to mind, somewhat uncomfortably, one of my worst ever moments in the training room, which I thought I’d share with you.  Perhaps this act of Openness (another attribute of Authenticity, which the book describes extremely effectively) will in some way be a therapeutic moment for me, and I’ll be able to “move on” as a result?!

A few years ago I was running an Advanced Presentation Skills course for a team of facilities managers.  They knew each other well, which turned out to be in my favour.  We were talking about peripheral vision in the context of maintaining eye  contact with your audience.  I was saying that it is surprising how much you can see to the side even when you face the audience.  To prove the point  I invited the group to “stand up, hold your hands out in front of you with your thumbs up, and move them apart to the sides until you can’t see the thumbs any more.”  (Try it yourself, it’s quite surprising).

One of the participants, who we’ll call Andy, replied: “But I haven’t got any thumbs!”  Which I knew to be true, having shaken his hand when he first arrived!

After a stunned silence and a gasp from me as if someone had punched me in the chest, the room fell about laughing, Andy included.  When we had recovered (it took some time), I told him that this was the worst social gaff I had perpetrated in my training career, and could he ever forgive me?  Which he did, very gracefully.

It could so easily have been worse.  I got lucky.  Humour defused it, as it often does.

The group I am training this week are in Adu Dhabi, so the room will have a mixture of Emiratis and a wide range of Expats.  The course I taught last week segregated itself naturally into local women, local men and expats, each of whom had their own sets of rules about social conduct (many of which I am aware of, but plenty of which are unknown to me).  It’s like walking on eggshells.  Remembering not to offer my hand to the women.  Not asking them to do role plays in which they are not sitting face to face.  Remembering to ask them when Prayers are.  It’s fascinating, educational, and for the Socially Unintelligent, a potential minefield.

So far so good, and they seem to appreciate the style of a mad Englishman in the room.  I was asked, within minutes of the start, where I went to University, and Oxford seemed to cut it with them, which helped!  Maybe they cut me some extra slack because of it.

For further study of Social Flatulence in action, might I suggest TV’s “The Office” in either US or UK versions.  John Ratzenberger (Cliff in “Cheers”).  Gordon Brown’s description of a woman as a “Bigot” when he thought he was off air has gone down in history as one of the major gaffes of his premiership.


I’d love to hear of any great examples you have witnessed or perpetrated which you feel able to share!