Book Reads Teaching and Learning

Talking to Colleagues about Talking to Strangers

October 24, 2019

My daughter Alex gets a quirky partial smile on her face when she’s highly anxious or nervous. I worried that this would work against her when she was in Navy Boot Camp.

Today’s blog explains why…

When Mike Lawrence invited me to his next #HookEd virtual book club talk, I jumped at the opportunity. The book selected was Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell.

Usually, I would read the book so that my post-it tabs could be put to good use, but I’m glad I chose the audiobook this time. Gladwell, when quoting others throughout the book, included the original audio, so in many ways, the audiobook felt like a really long podcast, in which multiple people were invited to speak. It helped make sense of the dense topic he was wading through.

About the Book

But I have to admit, I didn’t love this book. I’m not even sure I really liked it. I did, however, enjoy the book talk, especially when we discussed the “allusion of asymmetric insight.” As the book explains, asymmetrical insight is:

The conviction that we know others better than they know us—and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa)—leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.

To illustrate this point, the book shares a simple experiment in which people are given words in which some letters are replaced with a blank. Participants fill in the blanks to form words. When people analyze the word bank of others, they tend to draw conclusions. For example, if most of the words are glum, they might assume the person is depressed, or negative. And yet, when looking at their own set of words, people often state that there is no correlation to their personality, and that the words are just random.

Mike asked each of the book club participants to also complete the word list. A couple participants even asked a few others to complete it as well. And just like in the book, we all ascribed no meaning to our own list, but could easily find connections in others.

Mike had a good insight into this – he said that, as humans, our brain is constantly looking to solve patterns and find meaning where maybe meaning doesn’t exist. I wonder if it’s a remnant of our cave days… staying alive by judging situations and people quickly.

Human Transparency

Which may explain another problem Gladwell brought up – that of human transparency. Gladwell says that we tend to have a “default to [an assumption of] truth,” meaning we think we know or can read other people’s intentions, good or bad. We base much of this on facial expressions. After all, how hard can it be to recognize anger or fear on someone else’s face?

Turns out it is pretty dang hard. Mismatches between expressions and intentions are common. And if you think all anger looks the same, then the Trobiander tribe in Papau New Guinea will convince you otherwise. To them, a gasping face is a face of anger and threats, and not fear.

And when the perceived facial expression doesn’t align with the emotion we expect to be present, it creates a mismatch. And mismatches can lead to incorrect assumptions about the person in front of us. This can be something as simple as, “That person is always in a bad mood” to a life altering guilty verdict because the defendant doesn’t appear remorseful.

I have been a victim of facial mismatching. RBF, anyone?

A photo of a woman with a perceived scowl, with the headline "What is Resting Bitch Face"

So why am I bothering to write about this?

I was talking to a colleague the other day who said that she had been perceived as a less dedicated teacher

How many times do we, as educators, make assumptions about our students, or their families, (or each other?) that are either based on an allusion of asymmetric insight or a facial-emotional mismatch?

Ever think a parent must not be invested in a child’s education since that parent never shows up to school events, award assemblies, or sign homework logs?

I’ve missed many of my daughters’ events because, as an educator, I had to be at events at the same time as they had theirs.

Ever suspect that a child (or spouse…lol) is lying since s/he is avoiding eye contact when questioned about a situation?

I get anxiety when confronted and look away so I can focus on controlling my own emotions before responding.

Ever assume the class understood your lecture because they are all nodding their heads as you speak?

So many times I’ve been off-task or bored and will nod so as to avoid being discovered.

Ever think a student doesn’t care about the failing grade because they smirk when you bring up the topic?

I circle back to the opening, and my daughter Alex with her quirky smirk…

Know Better, Do Better

Here’s the thing – so much of what we know, or presume to know, is based on assumption. I’ve made a lot of (probably incorrect) assumptions about my students and colleagues and community throughout my career.

Perhaps, then, Gladwell’s book had an impact on me, even though I wasn’t a huge fan.

Gladwell writes: “The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly it will crumple under our feet… The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”

Or as we say in design thinking, empathy. 😌

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