Read the Room

November 21, 2019

Does our predisposition to take people at face value hinder our ability to get an accurate first impression? Our latest book club pick, “Talking to Strangers,” raises the question.

This week’s book club focused on Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Talking to Strangers.” You think you might know this book by its title, but it turns out that it’s not a self-help book on how to talk to strangers – it’s about how bad we are at translating and interpreting communication with strangers.

Gladwell explores two fundamental questions:
  • What prevents people from knowing they are being deceived by strangers?
  • How come meeting people makes us worse at making sense of strangers?

We think we can judge people, but statistically, we are actually very bad at it because of how we’re wired as humans. To make sense of strangers and interpret communication, we use a couple of tools that, unfortunately, are not very reliable.

We have trust on autopilotPB-US-Blog-inline-talking-strangers

The “truth default theory” states that most of us operate under the assumption that people with whom we’re dealing are telling us the truth, and this assumption allows us to be deceived by strangers. This tool is needed for efficient communication and effective social relationships. It’s hard to have meaningful relationships if you don’t begin them in a state of trust. Think about it: Do you trust the Starbucks barista to give you the correct change, or do you sit there and calculate it? After a doctor gives you a diagnosis, do you research it, or trust the expertise and fill the prescription? This default mechanism makes society work efficiently and effectively, but it has some unfortunate side effects.

Before you judge

Gladwell also explores transparency, which suggests that the way people represent themselves on the outside (their behavior and demeanor) presents an authentic and reliable window into how they feel on the inside. This poses a challenge as well, and Gladwell advises to substitute direct experience in this stereotype by being a little more deliberate and patient in talking to strangers. His advice carries across both of these puzzles: Stop, reflect and get to know the person.

Take a measured approach

As a leader, I began to reflect on how and where these two questions impact us at work. Recruitment came to mind, as we are trying to make a decision on whom to hire – perhaps a stranger – based on a couple of hours of discussion. Additionally, how many times do we make recruiting decisions based on transparency? Do we conduct interviews blindly? Of course, we could avoid the stranger by taking referrals or hiring people we know, but that made me see the potential unconscious bias a little clearer. 

There isn’t an easy answer, and I do value the efficiency trust creates in society, but the book did cause me to step back and think: How can I be a little more deliberate?

Front and Centered team will be taking a short break to enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday with our family and friends. We wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving with those you love. We will return with a new post on Thursday, December 5.

Comments


Want more Al?

Ask Al a question or book him to speak at your next event.

He's spoken all over the world about industry dynamics and global talent management, leadership, business strategy, change management and work-life integration.

Ask Al
Al Chiaradonna