Social Question

hearkat's avatar

What is your take on the concept of Situational Awareness?

Asked by hearkat (22405 points ) April 5th, 2014

This concept was mentioned in another post as a trait to look for when one is on a first date. Some of that overlaps with what I often refer to as “social niceties” – with which I struggle.

As observed in people on the Autism Spectrum, this ability to read and respond to external and especially social cues is an innate trait. I would think that this talent is higher among people who are more extroverted. In our culture, it is a trait that is expected to be higher in females than males. Most who know me say that I am considerate and compassionate; however, I do not pick up easily on social cues, and since I am female, I am judged harshly for this.

Like all skills, one can work to improve their abilities, but it is not the same as someone for whom it comes naturally. For example, I have made a conscious effort and have come quite far in being less withdrawn. However, a colleague of mine is a classic “mensch” and I see the difference it makes in how she is perceived by others, as opposed to my introversion and lacking SA.

To what extent do you feel that SA is a learned skill or an innate trait? Do you have any advice or tips to help people like myself for whom this talent is elusive?

Would it be a deal-breaker for you in a potential relationship? Do you think that it should be a measure by which people are judged in skilled professions?

Can you imagine a society where those of us who are born lacking these traits are not seen in a negative light, since this is how we are born?

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14 Answers

thorninmud's avatar

Zen practice involves a lot of work on situational awareness. It’s absolutely a skill that can be learned and expanded. It’s rooted in the ability to disengage the attention from one’s thought process. When your attention is occupied by what’s going on in your head, it won’t be tuned in to your environment.

There is a correlation between introversion and getting “lost in your thoughts”, primarily because that interior world of thought feels like a safe refuge from the uncomfortable over-stimulation of social interaction. It’s just more comfortable “inside” than “outside”.

In Zen training, we begin with learning not to get stuck in the thought process. We keep the attention on an element of the “situation”—often the breath—and redirect the attention there whenever it gets drawn away by thought. We learn to notice the coming and going of thoughts, but without engaging them.

With lots of practice, the thought world stops feeling so much like “home base”, and what’s going on here and now—the situation—feels more relevant. It’s not necessarily that an introvert becomes an extrovert (I certainly haven’t); it’s more that the separation between “inside” and “outside” becomes less distinct, as if the walls of that little internal hideaway become permeable and transparent. They even disappear at times. And that’s OK. Instead of the world happening around you, all of that is you.

hearkat's avatar

Interesting point, @thorninmud. I hadn’t considered how mindfulness helps, but it certainly does. I wrote the question without having put much contemplation into it myself, because I want to explore it through the minds of others.

I’ve developed my own version of mindfulness through my personal transformation after having been disappointed by various attempts at therapy. I only learned of the concepts of mindfulness and cognitive behavior therapy after I started practicing them on my own as ways to modify my poor behavior and thought patterns. So while I can agree that I have improved my awareness of and connection to the world around me, my greatest weakness seems to be in developing the socially acceptable responses as a fairly natural reaction, rather than as an afterthought.

How do you apply this in your daily interactions with people who are more influenced by Western cultural and societal mores?

gailcalled's avatar

The minute I was responsible for my first child, my situational awareness took over my entire life and now is a permanent resident in my psyche.

I was almost able to read my childrens’ minds, partiularly my daughter’s. (I could always tell when she was lying as a little girl, which enraged her.)

hearkat's avatar

@gailcalled – I definitely have a sixth-sense where my son is concerned, but that seems in large part because he is half of my biology and half of a person whom I loved dearly and knew very intimately; and he was raised almost exclusively by me – so he is a byproduct of me and I would hope I’d be able to pick up on his cues much more easily than others.

Do you have any thoughts or opinions about the questions I posed within the details?

gailcalled's avatar

I have felt I have too much, and have to restrain myself sll the time from trying to solve the problems of many other people. I see it as innate and probably not related to either intro- or extra-vertedness. I hide in corners at parties (when I can occasionally still force myself to go) but can pick up on the misery or distress cues of lots of people. ’

I can’t help you with the rest of your inquiry. I wouldn’t know how to teach someone what I can sense.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I’m glad you brought this up. SA applies to more than just dating. It is used in our every day lives and in stressful situations, as well.
I was at an old family restaurant this morning. The waitress either had very little SA or did not understand her job. She spent time talking to the other waitress. She rarely looked over at the other old guys sitting in the booths. She brought the food without the napkins. She did not walk by to fill coffee. You get the idea.
Contrast this with the waitresses at Denny’s. In my area they are the gold standard. As soon as you walk in, you are greeted, seated, and asked what you would like to drink within 30 seconds.. They watch to see if your coffee cup is not full. They walk over to take your order as soon as you put the menu down. They are watching you and are constantly anticipating your needs. Actually this is much better service than at a certain unnamed expensive restaurant. (I tip the Denny;s staff well.)
When I go somewhere and am being seated I try to be aware of the temperature and how others are dressed. I will automatically take the colder location if I am wearing more clothes. I will also seat myself to the left of others since I am left handed. I do it without any mention.
When I drive into a large I will face the car into the wind so the door does not get blown open. I will also try to aim in the direction of where the sun will be when i leave so the ice will be melted. It is so simple I just spend 10 seconds thinking ahead and looking around.. Of course this is not always possible. Sometimes there is only one parking space but if I have a choice, I will face into the wind and the sun.

Now imagine the other end of the spectrum where you have someone spending all their time with their face in their mobile device, or are walking with Super zippy Sub woofer headphones plugged into their MP7 Mobiplayer.. It is safe to assume they are not thinking of the comfort or needs of others. They are in their own world. When (not if) they walk into a street pole or fall into a pothole they will be angry at the city for not fixing the pothole or poor pole placement.
How does this fit in with dating / mating? In my opinion a person with SA makes the best partner / lover. They notice if the other person’s needs are not being met. While watching TV the person with good SA looks around the room occasionally (during a commercial) and notices that some tissues are on the floor or the light is on in the basement or the water is dripping in the sink, or the other person is getting sleepy, etc.,.and they respond accordingly.
It only takes a few seconds to look around and consider the other person’s needs.

SA is usually applied in dangerous locations, combat, natural disasters, and emergencies. Look behind you for the threat you don’t see. Know your escape routes. Look for anomalies.. But I contend it makes living with others much more pleasurable.
A person with good SA likely has empathy and will be a more attentive partner,

The good news is that it is easy to do. You just need to periodically look up from our own little world and see what is going on around you. Then think how you can help.

The “princess” standing by her car door waiting for the guy to open the door for her while he struggles with two bags of groceries will soon find herself doing all her own driving.
The best partner is one who notices that you are having trouble and opens the door for you.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Try hunting for pictures of animals with a camera. I hunted a lot as a kid into my adult years, and it made me super observant. I use that with people in my life and I can tell what someone is going to do immediately. It helps with driving too.

thorninmud's avatar

@hearkat “How do you apply this in your daily interactions with people who are more influenced by Western cultural and societal mores?”

It sounds to me like you’re kind of looking for a technique or strategy, but I don’t think there is such a thing. Technique and strategy are brokered by your thought process, and you really want to leave that behind here. Disentangling yourself from your thoughts, i.e. getting out of your head, makes all the difference.

When you’re not in Thoughtland, the barriers between you and others fade (because those barriers exist only in Thoughtland). This is what I meant by relaxing the distinction between “inside” and “outside”. In effect, you loosen your grip on the idea that “I’m over here, and you’re over there”. “You” and “I” stop feeling so distinct.

Your awareness gravitates to that which feels most intimately related to you. Because the landscape of your thoughts feels very closely linked to your sense of self, your awareness settles in there. When you wean your attention way from its thought nest, it stops feeling so much like “you”. You can then begin to see that wherever your awareness settles, a feeling of “I” wells up. Everything now has the same kind of relevance that was previously reserved for your thoughts.

But, to return to my first point, this can’t be some technique that you coach yourself through, or talk yourself into. It just comes naturally from letting thoughts go.

janbb's avatar

It is one of the most endearing traits of one of my good friends. He seems to have an innate sense of empathy and ability to enter into another’s feelings without imposing. I have it to some degree but have to work on expressing it more. It is a pleasure to be around someone like that and while it would not be a dealbreaker if someone I wanted to date didn’t have it, it is certainly a determining factor.

I feel I have it to the highest degree with friends or family I am closest to but also when I am teaching a class and can almost sense when someone is thinking of a response. I can also feel the energy in the room.

Following on what others have said, I think that to the extent that one can get out of one’s own head and be attuned to the present and what is going on around them, one can develop more situational awareness.

I do think it is mostly an innate trait, however, and may be most highly developed in those of us who needed it as protection against very volatile, emotional parents.

I do think that the more

hearkat's avatar

@janbb – Are you OK? Your comment ends in the middle of a sentence at the start of a new paragraph…

gailcalled's avatar

MIlo here; Frodo and his friends have taken over, I fear.

hearkat's avatar

@LuckyGuy – What you, @Adirondackwannabe and @thorninmud are describing seems more like observational skills and a sense of connectedness — I do have those, and I notice even tiny bugs on a blade of grass on the lawn or soft, distant sounds. I also feel that I am quite good at reading people and empathizing with them.

What I seem to have misinterpreted from the introduction of the concept on the dating post, was that it related to social skills, and knowing the ways to take the information obtained by observations and apply it in socially appropriate ways. Apparently, this is a different question, and I will have to ponder how to ask it; but if someone feels they ‘get’ what I’m getting at, feel free to continue the conversation here.

janbb's avatar

Not sure what I did there. Must be time for bed!

hearkat's avatar

@janbb – Yes – definitely time for bed!

In my case, I don’t remember being able to ‘read’ the more volatile members of my family during childhood. My awareness of minute changes in the environment were my venue for escape, though: a spec of dust in a sunbeam could transport me to another universe – like in Horton Hears a Who, my favorite childhood story – where I evaded the unpleasantness and misery of my childhood. I became a bit more skilled in my romantic relationships with volatile types, though.

So we’ve identified Situational Awareness as a keen sensitivity in changes in the environment; but does it also apply to keen sensitivity to changes in other humans’ behaviors? Or does that have a different name? As I contemplate this further, I have an ability to empathize with people, but only once the situation is known to me. I have developed a good ability to read others’ sincerity, but picking up on nonverbal cues is definitely a weakness. My visual memory for faces and such is pretty bad. I can see someone’s face and know that I’ve seen it before, but the connection is not made. On the other hand, I can hear their voice in the next room, and their name comes to me surprisingly quickly.

I’m rambling, and I apologize – but what the heck, it’s my question. Thanks for your contributions, everyone – and don’t hesitate to add more if something comes to mind.

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