Features & Columns

The Social Hack

Local startup Jaunty wants to unlock a more outgoing, personable you
WAIS-GUY: Eric Waisman, founder of the 'social intellegence' company Jaunty, believes that everyone can learn to be more outgoing. Greg Ramar

The cozy workspace overlooking the Guadalupe River Trail was designed for multitasking. Tonight, it's a classroom. Desks are arranged in neat rows, facing the front of the room, where a clean whiteboard gleams—reflecting the golden hour light streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Tallying the number of people entering the room—located on the sixth floor of the Riverwalk Tower building on West San Carlos Street, part of a block of space leased by WeWork—I lose count at 40. By the time the instructor begins leading the lesson, close to 60 have crowded in.

They're all here for a free beginner's course on "social intelligence." Jaunty, the Bay Area startup running this workshop, claims that anyone—from the mildly awkward to the seriously introverted—can overcome their social jitters and achieve meaningful interpersonal interaction.

I'm curious on a personal level to see if Jaunty can help me overcome some of my own social anxiety. Could a class really help me feel more comfortable in my own skin?

In today's workshop, we go through the insights and techniques that Jaunty holds up as the key to unlocking more meaningful connections with others, whether they be platonic, romantic or professional.

The skills taught throughout the company's paid six-week course are status, rapport, approach and conversational agility, humor and play, magnetism and charisma—and lastly, the shifting of one's own mental framework.

Workshop instructor Melissa Goldberg, draws a pyramid explaining how attraction works according to the Jaunty model. We redefine confidence. We practice a technique that Goldberg calls "threading," which, if successful, should banish awkward silence in one-on-one conversation.

She drives home Jaunty's main pitch: anyone has the potential to become the social wizard. It just takes practice… and, of course, a little do re mi.

SOCIAL SURFER

Jaunty was born out of two serious wipeouts. After taking a bad fall while surfing in San Diego, Jaunty founder Eric Waisman spent six months laid up with a slipped disc between his L4 and L5 lumbar vertebrae.

It was 2008, the Great Recession was taking shape and Waisman—recently laid off from his job as a wealth adviser and financial planner with Merrill Lynch—spent his convalescence reading books on brain science and human behavior while doing some serious soul searching.

"Every three days, I'd finish a book," Waisman says, adding that he feels like he walked away from the experience with something like a "master's degree" in behavioral science. "As I slowly healed, I just really learned about myself and said, 'I need to get out of finance. I need to help people. I love people.'"

Waisman, 40, is a Bay Area native, born in San Francisco and raised in Larkspur. Before founding Jaunty in 2013, he'd spent his professional life helping others make financial decisions and plan for the future. The job often required him to lean on a skill he'd first homed in on while studying at the University of Northern Colorado. Back in those days, Waisman served as his fraternity's relationship guru.

As he grew older, Waisman's interest in the unwritten rules of human interaction grew. As a financial adviser, he was frequently called upon to walk couples through important budgeting practices and investment strategies. This sometimes required that he get to know his clients intimately. Furthermore, during his time at Merrill Lynch, Waisman would drum up new accounts by throwing on a suit and infiltrating upper-crust social events all over San Francisco. The goal was always the same: to meet wealthy individuals and convince them to let him manage their portfolio.

Sneaking into the city's socialite shindigs—sometimes through the kitchen—and "schmoozing with the elite of the Bay Area," was its own kind of master class, Waisman says. Every night, he took mental note of how people carried themselves and related to others. He got to know his marks' personal philosophies and zeroed in on their insecurities. He learned how to stoke their egos. He was studying.

It wasn't all business. It was also fun. Finessing a free drink from the bar, figuring out who was dating whom and who was really running the show —Waisman found it all fascinating, and more than a little thrilling.

He was learning the underlying code of successful social interaction—the ones and zeros of interpersonal communication. He was Neo, and he was beginning to see the Matrix.

The same year that Waisman tumbled from his surfboard, Merrill Lynch also took a gnarly spill—plummeting from atop tidal wave of subprime mortgages. Fortunately for Waisman, he was ready to deploy the skills he had learned tinkering with social mechanics toward a more noble goal.

LIFE HACK

After his back healed, Waisman walked away from Wall Street and its wolves. Merrill Lynch had darkened his view of finance. He was tired of the toxic work culture and upset that he had sold—unwittingly, he says—so many junk bonds in his time with the company.

Waisman started Jaunty with the goal of passing on the social dexterity he'd picked up over the course of his life and career. The free bimonthly group sessions are structured to teach the basics of social craft—and to convince attendees to shell out for the six-week comprehensive course.

Business has been good for Jaunty. The company has led sessions with the biggest tech firms in the Valley—including Google, Yelp and WeWork. Its second location launched in San Jose this past May, and they're opening a third center of operations in Los Angeles. Waisman says that his services are in demand—especially in the Bay Area—because Silicon Valley's social structure is broken.

He should know. Waisman was 20 when the first dot-com bubble burst. He lived through the subsequent economic downturn and has since seen the rise of Web 2.0. Mobile devices and big tech money have transformed the globe, but they've had an incredibly profound impact in his own backyard.

"We've got blinders on. We're so in a rush all the time, we forget about people," he says. "We're just so plugged-in… It's hard to say 'Hi' in line at Starbucks today." While it's impossible to pin this social entropy on tech alone, he believes Silicon Valley's workaholic culture can go a long way toward explaining the phenomenon.

However, Waisman says, there is an antidote. Just as Google serves up answers to questions and Trello will schedule your life, Jaunty will help you hack your relationships. It is a quintessentially Silicon Valley solution to a Silicon Valley problem.

Like so many in this region, Waisman is obsessed with understanding how things work from the inside out. But instead of studying traffic patterns in order to design safer self-driving cars or deploying artificial intelligence to help people write punchier, grammatically sound emails, it's people Waisman is interested in.

"My curiosity for people is just endless," he says. "It's a bottomless question. Everyone I see, I just wonder, what would it take to connect with them?"

Many people working in technology think about the world in a very methodical way, Waisman says. Too many self-help books and life coaches confuse students with incredibly broad mantras.

"Be confident. Find your true self and be that. It's not very helpful," he says.

Jaunty approaches the practice of social interaction the way an engineer might approach a new project—by highlighting a number of inputs that are likely to generate a desired result. This technique appeals to many Silicon Valley introverts on an analytical level.

Tech "people really love having systems," he says. "And so having rules or having 'A to B equals C'—our class was kind of built on that and creating structures and formulas that everyone can do. So, a lot of people who think in those terms really connect with it."

Perhaps more importantly, however, the Jaunty system rejects the idea that some people simply can't socialize well. "It undoes, 'You're born with it,'" he says.

Social skills can be learned, and individuals can improve upon their social skills without erasing their personalities in the process. The Jaunty team says it's all about building upon what's already there and finding ways to smooth out kinks while spinning idiosyncrasies into points of strength.

"That's something we push," Waisman adds. "Finding our best rather than trying to be something else."

SOCIAL SQUAD: Eric Waisman with Melissa Goldberg, who will be taking over Jaunty's San Jose office while Waisman works to open a new location in Los Angeles. Greg Ramar

DARK ARTS

For those who recall the cynical and manipulative pickup artist movement of the early 2000s, Jaunty's formulaic approach to meeting people may sound like a familiar swindle. Listening to Waisman launch into a step-by-step breakdown of the mechanics of casual conversation, it's not hard to imagine him donning a fuzzy Jamiroquai hat and negging women at a local ultra lounge.

It's even more tempting to make the pickup artist connection while listening to Waisman talk shop with Manhattan dating coach Chris Luna. Through his blog, Craft of Charisma, Luna offers one-on-one relationship coaching, as well as tips on creating a knockout Tinder profile and learning "10 Simple Steps to Make Her Want You."

Waisman is the featured guest on a March 2017 episode of Luna's Craft of Charisma podcast. During that episode, Waisman uses terms and turns of phrase that dovetail with the pickup artist vernacular: approach, "chatting up a group of women," and teaching "nice guys to be great men."

Waisman says he was never deeply involved in the pickup scene, though he concedes that he knew of it, and admits he read The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Published in 2005, the book was one of the central texts of the PUA community. It's author, Neil Strauss, now brands himself as a reformed pickup artist; his 2015 follow-up to The Game, is titled The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

"I did play around with that, but I think that stuff felt really manipulative," says Waisman, stressing that Jaunty is all about intentionality. And while Waisman allows that some of the Jaunty curriculum may be connected to pickup artistry, he insists that he and Goldberg aren't simply looking to help their students get laid.

To his credit, over the course of the 2017 podcast Waisman continues to emphasize that he doesn't want his clients to trick anyone into thinking anything about them—and perhaps most importantly, he says no one should try to trick themselves. "I think it's important that you do that stuff for you first," he says to Luna. noting that true confidence stems from being comfortable in one's own skin.

"What do you really want? What's important to you?" Waisman asks students. "At the end of the day, is it about you being supported and loved? At the end of the day, is it about you caring and being empathetic?"

Jaunty does, in fact, screen its clients prior to admission to make sure they're a good fit—and Waisman has turned some away for ill intentions. Some are just looking to carve a few more notches in their belts. Others might not benefit from the class if they're unwilling to put in the work.

One Jaunty alum, Bhuwan Agarwal, was a willing student. Agarwal attributes his new job at Amazon to the time he spent working with Waisman. Before Jaunty, he explains, his interactions were too direct. He was untactful and often rubbed people the wrong way.

"I think I was always genuine; it's just that I wasn't presenting it in a way that was acceptable," Agarwal says. "This conversation that we're having right now, I don't think I would have been able to do this four years ago."

Agarwal had to switch up his approach, but it wasn't about manipulating people or being fake. "And that's the biggest thing—that I can be myself," he says.

YES, COACH

Originally from Rockwell, Maryland, Melissa Goldberg was named Jaunty's lead San Jose in May. She comes from a background of non-profit work and coaching—a proponent of what she calls the "show up and speak" approach to life. On top of her work with Jaunty, she continues to coach clients through her own company, Speech Capital.

Goldberg has taught an array of human connection and authentic relationship skills and has been a bold, outgoing person since she was young. She was approaching Senators and CEOs as a teenager, advocating for policy and the changes she wished to see in the world, such as anti-discriminatory legislation.

She's seen how valuable and vital connection is for health and healing. On a three-day project with the Cheyenne River Youth Project in South Dakota, Goldberg worked with the non-profit's team so they could connect more meaningfully with the people they were serving. These skills aren't a game—they affect the quality of life itself, and like everything, are the output of feedback loops and past experiences.

"For the Lakota people, they have so much trauma in their history that eye contact is challenging," Goldberg says. On a more widespread level, getting hurt through social interaction impacts many people and their social comfort. "A lot of individuals have all sorts of traumas that make eye contact harder—or other challenges in their lives, or ways that they've been rejected in the past that make them not want to look up and not want to connect with people for fear that they might be rejected again."

She's ardent about agency, adding that things like assertiveness matter—big time. "It applies both politically and from a business standpoint, but it also applies in people's personal lives." With Jaunty, she's continuing to teach people how to share opinions, disagree, make requests and, one of the most important skills of all—how to say "no."

Goldberg believes in the step-by-step method. "When you break it down, it's simple." So students learn the breakdown—bit by bit—and then head out into their own communities and spaces to practice.

"Change isn't magical, but it's learnable," she says.

FEAR FACTOR

While many students move on from Jaunty with a positive experience—and Waisman and Goldberg naturally substantiate the organization's merit—a local psychologist cautions that behavioral reconditioning is tricky business.

Psychologically speaking, negative emotions are culturally shaped, says Dr. Birgit Koopmann-Holm, assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. "My past research suggests there are cultural differences in how we want to avoid feeling negativity," Koopmann-Holm says. "People in the Bay Area, they really tend to not want to feel negative emotions, including anxiety. And if your culture prescribes that you shouldn't feel this, or any negative emotions, then that might even be worse for you with social anxiety than when it's more accepted."

According to Koopmann-Holm, one of Jaunty's approaches—working with people to help them feel more comfortable when they are out of their normal comfort zone—makes sense. Increasing someone's social anxiety by placing them in difficult social situations can help people overcome their anxieties.

However, she says, a good next step for Jaunty might involve getting a psychologist onboard. "The way we're being trained critically and analytically might help them on the team," she says. While Jaunty's methodology mirrors clinical cognitive behavior therapy, neither Waisman nor anyone in his organization have a medical license—and there are some lines Waisman will not cross. During the screening process, if someone exhibits signs of an extreme phobia, he will encourage them to get professional help elsewhere.

Although the classes are based on years of dedication to better understanding behavioral science and social culture, Koopman-Holm advises that there's no way to know the curriculum itself is the reason for students' improvement. It's possible that talking to a caring person helps some people. Jaunty can't claim their methods are proven in the clinical sense.

Koopman-Holm stresses that without clinical testing, no matter Jaunty's success with students, there's no way to verify that their model works better than behavioral therapy or other practices to alleviate true social anxiety. "Ideally, you'd have a control group," she says. Waisman says he is willing to participate in some sort of study that would gather this sort of data.

MISSION POSSIBLE

I spent a good amount of time pestering Waisman and Goldberg about the work they do. After participating in the free workshop and getting to know Jaunty—and the people behind it—it's easy for me to see how this company's process really does work.

One free workshop didn't eliminate my own social anxiety, of course, but the basic premise of this "dojo for human relations" makes sense to me. We're all awkward. Sometimes we just don't know what to say or do. Sometimes, we're jerks. Sometimes, we're too nervous to be the person we want to be. But if there is any truth to the maxim "practice makes perfect"—and I believe there is—I don't see why that wouldn't apply to social interaction.

Of course, none of us will ever be perfect, and that's okay. If Jaunty's courses help local introverts feel any less confined by their social anxiety, I'm all for it. They may not be saving the world—as Silicon Valley firms claim they will—but at least Jaunty provides people an opportunity to work for the relationships they really want.

Nick Veronin contributed to this story.