Managing Social Capital

There are a lot of authors who talk about managing social capital, especially in terms of relationships… but from what I can see, most people fail to apply the rules of social capital beyond personal relationships, even if they’re wise enough to manage how they interact with their significant others.

It also turns out that I and a friend of mine actually worked out a form of social capital back when we were ne’er-do-wells in an office together, and it occurred to me that our description of social capital was actually a pretty apt way of seeing it, even though it was really more of a joke at the time.

First off, what is social capital? From a paper on social capital from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

Lyda Hanifan referred to social capital as “those tangible assets [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit”.

In other words, when you give something to someone else, you build up your social capital with that person. Likewise, when you take something from someone else, you lose capital with that person.

The more that you contribute, or give, to them, the more likely they are to contribute or give to you. Likewise, the more that you exhaust your social capital, the less likely they are to respond positively to you.

Willard Harley describes it in terms of a “love bank,” mostly because he was describing relationships: when you do something your significant other likes or wants, you “deposit” into your balance, and when you do something your partner does not like, you debit your balance… and when it reaches zero, you might lose your partner.

That’s all well and good, I suppose, and I find the metaphor pretty accurate. But I’d like to present mine, nonetheless, because mine includes the idea of severity.

The way I see it, you have different grades of contribution. You can do something that builds your social capital a lot, or you can do something that detracts from it a little.

And because I came up with this idea when I was generally going without something to eat, I thought of it in terms of food.

First off, let’s think of the positive aspect. There are three denominations of points: brownie points, pie points, and cake points.

A brownie point is a small thing. Hold the door open for someone to walk through? Well, that’s a nice thing, but it’s small… you can probably consider yourself to have earned a brownie point with that person, unless they’re crazy-stupid with some oddball political philosophy that sees you holding the door as some kind of power play over women or men or … whatever.

(Social capital, like most other things, still involves the eye of the beholder.)

But … what if it’s raining, and the person is holding grocery bags, and you go out of your way to open the door, possibly even — gasp! — inconveniencing yourself to do so? Surely that transcends mere brownie points!

And it probably does. I’d think this was worth ten brownie points, but that’s a lot of brownies to carry around — let’s call it the next denomination up, the “pie point.”

So ten brownie points is one pie point, so far. But imagine there’s another level up from the pie points; if you earn a lot of brownie points, well, that adds up to a lot of pie points; that’s still unwieldy, so let’s say that ten pie points adds up to something even more magical, something used only in representation form, like the $1000 bill — the “cake point.”

Earning a cake point sounds pretty tough, and it probably is. Most people who have cake points have done so by earning one brownie point at a time, like filling a bucket using dewdrops.

One might earn a cake point with your kids, for example, by surprising them with a new iPhone, perhaps, or with tickets to that show they didn’t think were available any more, but these are very rare events and, truthfully, probably aren’t actually cake points; they’re more likely to be two or three pie points. (After all, gratitude is fleeting; “Sure, you got me an iPhone, but then you took me to McDonald’s, and that counters that stupid toy!”)

Now… the negatives. What’s the opposite of a brownie point? You can’t just say “I’m taking away a brownie point,” because that implies that there are brownie points to take away, and one assumes neutrality before anything else. So negatives work the same way as positives, just with different things… and in my case, they’re actually not very representative, but they’re the best I could come up with in my misspent youth.

They are, in order: okra points! Onion points! And worst of all… Brussels Sprouts points!

Now, please recognize: I’m a child of the South. Truth is, I love okra done properly, and since I’m in the Southern United States, it’s easy to find okra done well. Likewise, if I’m grilling a hot dog, you can bet your pie points that I’m slappin’ some onions on that puppy, so to speak. And while finding Brussels sprouts done well is a bit harder than finding good okra, well, that can be done, too.

But the analogies still hold up pretty well: an okra point is generally perceived as a mild offense. Forget to hold the door for the lady who was seven steps behind you? Well, okay, in today’s feminist world, that’s a very minor offense indeed, but chances are you did just earn yourself an okra point — which counters one of your brownie points, if you have any.

Watch as the door closes on the poor lady holding a wet grocery bag in the rain? You cad! You probably just earned a slather of okra points for yourself… maybe even an onion point.

And… ghosting that girl who you decided you really didn’t care for all that much after all? (Why did she have to be a Patriots fan?) … I’m sorry, but it really doesn’t matter what your reasons might be: you probably did just earn yourself a Brussels sprout.

(Sad truth: it’s a lot easier to earn onion points than pie points, and it’s also far easier to earn a Brussels sprout than it is to earn a cake. BTW, Suze, I am sorry.)

So how does this apply? It’s really a fairly comical way to think about how you interact with people. When you ask a question that serves yourself, well, you’re really asking something from someone else: they get a brownie point for answering, you get an okra point for infringing. You want few negative points and as many positive points as you can manage to earn.

(It’s safe to assume you actually don’t start off with a neutral balance: you probably start off with five brownie points that you either increase or negate immediately.)

But if you want to be consistently liked, answered, interacted with… it’s worth thinking about how your social capital is actually being managed (and what horks off the people with whom you talk) — keep track of your okra, your pies, your onions — if only to keep yourself on track so that the people around you keep wanting to give you what you want and need.

(Reposted from Medium because I don’t have the ability to keep track of every freaking social platform out there.)

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