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Book Review | Talking to Strangers (What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know) | Malcolm Gladwell

Have you ever tried making sense of new people you met? We create our own perceptions about their attitudes, behaviors, mindsets and preferences at a glance or after a few minutes of conversation. Often, we get it horribly wrong with dangerous outcomes changing the course of our lives, health, wealth, careers, families and more, believes Malcolm Gladwell.

In his book Talking to Strangers, he addresses some fundamental flaws in how we as humans think about people we know little about forming impressions too soon and then engaging in ways that reinforces those perceptions.

Sharing examples from history, sports, crime, trading, counter-espionage, anthropology, terrorism and policing, he throws light on our default systems at work and what comes in the way of us getting it right.

My take-aways

  • We are born to trust others and often fail to notice clues that are visible and easy to spot. It takes care and attention to ensure we are making the right judgement about people we don’t know. Therefore, we shouldn’t be too harsh on our abilities because even the professionally trained people aren’t able to make sense of strangers in most occasions
  • To give us the best chances of understanding strangers is to understand their context, the place they come from, their lived experiences and appreciate the nuances in speech and behaviors before jumping to conclusions. By decoupling the anchors people link to, we can appreciate strangers better.
  • We get it wrong when the impression of the stranger is mismatched with what we think it should be. We are bad at catching lies with judges able to spot liars just 54% of the time.
  • Whenever there is a human element involved (and this is where AI comes in handy), we tend to be flawed in our reasoning and decisions because of the amount of error and biases that creep in. Especially, with transparency, we believe that what people show on the outside aligns to how they feel on the inside. Which isn’t always true. So, behaviors and demeanor aren’t the best ways to gauge people.
  • We also default to truth giving people the benefit of doubt when we aren’t fully sure if they are likely to do what they do or wildly out of the zone regarding their abilities. He refers to the Truth-Default Theory (TDT) by Timothy Levine. TDT suggests that in communication, people generally trust others to be honest unless there’s a reason to doubt them. This default trust is crucial for effective communication but can also make us vulnerable to deception. TDT explores how this trust operates and identifies triggers that can prompt skepticism and improve lie detection, maintaining a balance between trust and vigilance in interpersonal interactions. We come out of the default when we stop believing after the evidence is surmountable.

My perspectives

  • There are many opportunities to put these insights into practice at the workplace. From hiring new staff to promoting team members; from choosing a partner to broadening your network. By constantly challenging our own decisions and biases, we can benefit from these insights.
  • Very rarely do organizations spend time to review decisions made and document the choices people in power make. Once we start doing that and the information is shared transparently, leaders will be more conscious of default decisions they make.
  • The words we choose and how we interpret what we hear can influence our decisions and make us biased. Being aware of this aspect can prevent us from forming wrong impressions of people.

Overall, this book opened my eyes and mind to the world of possibilities when we approach people with empathy, care and trust while staying grounded about signs and cues that may tell us when something is amiss.

#communication #signs #impressions #trust #care #empathy #behaviors #truth #psychology #speech

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