In trying to define what constituted “hardcore pornography”, Justice Potter Stewart delivered the most iconic line in US Supreme Court history: “I know it when I see it”. The maxim stuck, not only because it was inadvertently comedic (at least as far as jurisprudence goes), but because everyone knew what he meant.
Conversely, other qualities are more conspicuous by their absence. Specifically, emotional intelligence — loosely defined as the ability to understand, control and express one’s emotions and manage those of others.
We know it when we can’t see it. Yet emotional intelligence is often not rewarded commensurately. In a 2019 report, McKinsey found jobs requiring “hard skills” pay twice as much as those requiring soft skills. This is strange because we yearn to surround ourselves with people who seem to just ‘get’ us, and in doing so make us feel good.
I suspect part of the reason we undervalue emotional intelligence is that we’ve given it ghastly newspeak names such as ‘soft’ or ‘interpersonal’ skills. But try maintaining anything — friendship, family life or a parliamentary majority — without it.
Liz Truss’s premiership imploded within days because of her economic policies. But her stilted verbal (those speeches) and non-verbal skills (the confused looks afterwards) neither inspired confidence nor made those around her feel at ease. She alienated even sympathetic audiences.
It confirmed my view that most people shouldn’t go into politics. Partly because good policy requires the ability to implicity understand other people’s needs, aspirations and fears. But it’s also about self-preservation. Public service is a miserable existence when you are uneasy around the public.
If nothing else, not knowing the hidden rules simply swallows up too much bandwidth. The sheer number of moving parts in a conversation with just one other person is hard enough. You must parse not only the basics such as what is this person saying, but deeper questions such as: is that the same as what they want? Are there particular social norms I need to take into account? Who has power and does that matter? By which point, you’ve not been listening and have to ask them to repeat themselves. Except, it’s not one person you’re trying to talk to but a nation.
We shouldn’t entrust power only to those who crave attention, or the sociopaths who can fake emotional intelligence long enough to fool us. Therein lies the democratic and moral decay of American politics. But we should value more highly characteristics too often derided as slickness or spin. Communication skills, warmth, and empathy, yes these can be used to deflect but they can also be harnessed to inspire.
People who don’t know where to put their hands when having their photo taken or what to say to a stranger if they get stuck in a lift are normal. But for their sake and ours, let’s not put them in charge of the country.
In other news...
Last weekend, my Dad took my nephew to his first-ever Arsenal match. The Gunners won 5-0. Ordinarily, I’d be pleased. After all, I like all of the individuals and teams involved in the story thus far. Except, I know what my Dad will have said at the final whistle: “You must come every week!” This is the point at which I am eased out, like a 30-year-old during middle-period Wenger.
Fortunately, I’ve long prepared for this moment. Many years ago, I was replaced in my father’s affections by an automated pool cleaner he met on a family holiday, called Sweepy.
As for my nephew, I’ve decided to take the grown-up approach. I’ve demanded he be taken to the Manchester City home game so he can cry and beg to leave when we’re 3-0 down at half-time like everyone else. He is entitled to the fullest experience of fandom.