Talking to Strangers: Lessons From Gladwell

The faces we’ve seen but never met. The business prospects we’ve just been introduced to. The people at work that we’ve never talked to. We are surrounded by strangers. However good or bad we think we are at talking to “them” the truth is that most of us could be better. The stakes aren’t low either – our careers, personal lives, and even happiness could be altered by any chance encounter. This is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers.

Talking to Strangers has a bit of a dark side. Gladwell highlights, mostly through tragic events, the negative consequences of miscommunication. Diversion and gullibility, arrogance and ignorance, they’re all on display – to teach us. Gladwell encourages us to never just look at a stranger but to always look at their world. When communication fails, it’s usually because one or both parties assumptions are misaligned. We need context, and we should expect that context to come from outside of our own heads.

Gathering context is neither natural nor intuitive. We spend our lives building models of the world around us. These models are shortcuts to and for context gathering. On average these may be effective for preserving our sense of “reality,” but it doesn’t mean they’re accurate. We find ourselves in trouble when these models inevitably break down. The lesson of the book is to always have an awareness of those limitations somewhere near the top of our minds. It applies to both our professional selves and the clients we serve.

Gladwell encourages us to be careful. Everyone has their own models – their own context – that they are working from. If we want to be better at profiling, we really want to be better at uncovering as much of that context as we can. It requires us to look beyond the facts and figures and into the connections between them. It’s not easy. Our own expectations of connections won’t always apply. Moving beyond “stranger status” takes real work.

The upside to talking to strangers well is the ability to create actual relationships. If we gather the context, we can make real connections across all sorts of boundaries. Professionally, this is the goal we’re striving for. We add value when we take the time to engage in world studying and therefore new world-building with others. It’s all about curiosity and questions. It pays to be interested.

One last note on the book: it’s a bit more of a meditation on the concept than a hard-targeted “this is the big answer” narrative. Gladwell connects stories in the way only he can so expect to be entertained and provoked, but also expect to walk away with more questions than you started with.

Read/listened to “Talking to Strangers” already? Let me know your thoughts.

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