Jennifer looked up from her computer screen when she heard the light knock. A fairly new co-worker waited expectantly at the entrance to Jennifer’s cubicle.

“Jennifer, I would like to discuss that snide comment you made yesterday after I excused myself early from the strategy session. I was behind on my work, after the long weekend, and I needed to catch up before the end of the day. I would never schedule a root canal just to get out of a meeting!”

“I feel terrible, Robin. I didn’t mean for my comment to hurt you.” Jennifer stammered. She was floored that her innocuous little joke was so offensive.

Later, Jennifer related the story to her husband. “Can’t people take a joke anymore?”

The good news is that most people CAN take a joke but in order for someone to make a joke at someone else’s expense they must have earned the social capital to do so.

What is Social Capital?

Relationships Require a Certain Currency.

A relationship is like a savings bank containing two savings accounts. At the start of the association, both savings accounts are empty. Being new, the relationship is of little value to either party. There is no social capital stored in either savings account.

As the pair grows closer, their savings accounts expand. A social capital “chip” is earned each time a member of the pair does “something” for the other. When one earns a chip it is deposited into her account. The relationship becomes deeper and of more value as the savings accounts grow. In healthy relationship where both members of the pair are equals, the accounts multiply at the same rate. Two full social capital accounts signify a tightly knit bond built on trust, mutual respect, and equality.

Money Can’t Buy You Love…But Social Skills Sure Can

Social capital chips are earned by using good social skills. Respect, integrity, kindness, generosity and patience are some of the many virtues that net chips. When we use good social skills we help build our social capital accounts. A friend who is there in her chum’s time of need earns social capital chips. A co-worker who stays late to assist a colleague with a project earns social capital chips. A kind-hearted soul who drags her neighbor’s trash barrels in from the curb earns a chip or two. Gathering social capital chips, while simultaneously deepening our relationships, is the ultimate incentive for using good social skills and being well-socialized.

Withdrawing Funds

Similar to the way we withdraw money from a savings account to pay for things, we withdraw social capital chips from the relationship account. Every request made in a relationship comes with a price tag. The larger the request, the higher the fee. A request to listen to a friend’s woes comes with a price tag as does asking a friend to help with a move. A problem can occur if one member of the pair drains her savings account and is left with little or no social capital. When the two bank accounts are out of whack, the relationship runs into trouble. “I just can’t spend one more minute with her! She complains about everything, including her expensive shopping habit, and then assumes I’ll foot the bill for her steak dinner!”

Those who cherish their relationships keep a close watch over their social capital bank accounts. They continually ask themselves, “Am I contributing equally to this friendship and adding value (building social capital and earning chips) or am I taking too much from my friend and spending down my social capital chips?

The Bookkeeper

Earning social capital is not an exact science, in fact it is wholly subjective. The other person establishes how many chips you have stored up. Your “small favor” might burn more chips than you imagined or your huge act of kindness might not earn you many chips at all. “Unbelievable! I spent five precious vacation days sewing her a wedding dress, for free, and her thanks was a five-dollar gift card for a cup of coffee.” KA-CHING!!!

Jennifer and Robin Revisited

Jennifer and Robin’s situation is not all that unusual. Jennifer made a joke at Robin’s expense without being aware that she had no social capital in her account to cover the expenditure. Jennifer blamed Robin for being overly sensitive when in fact, Jennifer was in the wrong. In addition, her attempt at humor overdrew chips from her account that she will have to pay back if she values a relationship with her colleague.

Relationships are complicated and require constant attention. If the relationship is going to strengthen, each person must contribute equally and keep an eye on the amount in her social capital account. Treating people with dignity, kindness and respect, all important social skills, is the way to nurture relationships and build big social capital bank accounts. So, before making a joke at someone else’s expense or asking a friend to set aside a weekend to help you move, ask yourself, “Do I have enough social capital in my account to cover the bill?”