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5 Tips for Handing Social Situations and Interacting with Other People

By Becki Cohn-Vargas August 20, 2018 Lifestyle

Have you noticed that sometimes, when we are talking to a friend or family member, they suddenly get defensive? In such situations, we often wonder what we might have said to offend them.

Many seniors have similar questions about how to approach social situations. The SCARF model offers some insights.

But what is SCARF?

It’s a way to handle social situations and interact with people, but unlike other approaches, SCARF capitalizes on how the brain works. According to David Rock, CEO of the Neuroleadership Institute, our brains are wired for reducing possible dangers – both real and imagined – and for seeking validation.

Neuroscience is making great progress in learning more about how our brains work. Currently, researchers use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to actually scan the parts that light up in the brain under various circumstances.

I am sharing SCARF with the Sixty and Me community because, even after years of experience interacting, it can help us communicate better.

David Rock coined the acronym, SCARF (S-status, C-certainty, A-autonomy, R-relatedness and F-fairness) to describe five areas that can guide every human interaction: from personal encounters, to social and professional situations. Here I offer some examples of how to use it in daily life.


Status is our sense of worth in comparison to others. Rock says that if a person feels judged, a part of their brain is stimulated – in fact, scans show that the same area lights up as when their life is threatened.

Conversely, when a person feels valued, it increases their status and feeling of worth. As we age, particularly after retirement, we might feel a dip in our social status.

Being compared to someone might make us very uncomfortable. So, questions like, “When will you have grandchildren, Julie already has three…” or “Did you hear, Maryellen’s grandson was just accepted to Harvard” might just kick in stress hormones.

With greater awareness, we can be more empathetic and supportive of a person who has just lost a job or was recently divorced.


Brain studies, according to Rock, have highlighted the discomfort a person feels with ambiguity. In each situation, our brains are constantly trying to predict the future. Therefore, Rock suggests that by making our expectations clear, we can ease the fear.

The need for certainty is also evident when we are diagnosed with an illness. We want our doctors to tell us exactly what our prognosis will be and what treatment is recommended. Often this is not easy, however.

Can we help others feel certainty by making our relationship expectations clear and simply by committing to visit at the time we say?


When people lose autonomy, life feels out of control. Stress increases greatly when their energy level is lower than it used to be, limiting their movement. However, when they have choices, people experience some autonomy return in their life.

As we grow older, if we are retired with a fixed income, unanticipated expenses that threaten our limited budget can be scary. Being kind to ourselves, we can accept these feelings, make adjustments and still make choices.

When we communicate with others, are we giving advice too freely, triggering the stress for someone who feels less autonomy?


Brain experiments show that meeting new people raises our stress levels.

In experiments where a new person is introduced, the brain would release oxytocin, a hormone that helps with social bonding and makes us feel better. For humans, social interaction plays an integral part in life and trust forms the basis of our connections.

Recognizing this need reminds us to reach out to others and strengthen trusting relationships. Some deal-killers in relatedness include being judgmental, argumentative or breaching confidentiality.

As we approach others, do we share our vulnerabilities, making it safe for them to open up? Do they trust that we won’t judge them or break confidences?


Brain scientists have found that unfair situations generate a sense of danger. When we feel something is not fair, our brains go into defensive mode. That is why we can get outraged when someone cuts ahead in line.

Many seniors are treated unfairly. I know several people who, after successful careers, were forced out through unreasonable expectations and difficult work schedules.

We wonder if doctors are prescribing the medications we really need or are fattening the purses of pharmaceutical companies. Are we treating everyone fairly and considering their needs for fairness?

Have you noticed any aspects of SCARF in your life? Which of them do you find most useful in various situations? Please share your observations in the comments below.

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The Author

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D, has been blogging regularly for Sixty and Me since 2015. She is a retired educator and independent consultant. She's the co-author of three books on identity safe schools where students of all backgrounds flourish. Becki and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have three adult children and one grandchild. You can connect with her at the links below.

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