A while ago i started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers and i was pleasantly surprised. It’s a really great storytelling book about how well you really (think you) know someone and goes into several fabulous (historical) stories of spies and people from different walks of live meeting eachother and what happens when we start judging people without context.
One of the most interesting parts was the story of policing and why it is that in de U.S. the police pull over people for very minor things in the hope to catch bigger fish. Apparently it started as an experiment where the police in one city determined where most crime was committed and based on that started this strategy. This was succesfull in that crimes dropped and thus other cities started to notice.
That’s where it (somewhere) went wrong. Most cities just adopted the strategy all over the place in stead of focussing it in areas where most crime was committed. And that, for example, resulted in the heartbreaking story of a black woman being stopped by a white police officer where the former got shot and killed. While it’s very easy to blame the officer, in my opinion it’s the system in which the officer has to operate and what he has been taught is at fault. Of course using your own judgement still is important but i would not underestimate the training they recieve, that where the more dire the situation gets in their perspective the more they fall back on that training. But this story is about that having asked one or two more questions could have prevented this tragedy.
Applying thoughts to work
All in all it’s a very good book, with more great stories, although it doesn’t really come up with a concrete conclusion or advise. But it got me thinking about how well i know people that i, for example, work with. You talk to them on a daily basis but really getting to know and understand them is something i should do more often, otherwise they remain strangers.
And this is not to befriend them but to understand their background, motives and what drives them. For that you have to take time so one of the first things i did was spend at least half an hour a week with each teammember (team of 5) talking how things other than what’s currently on their plate. Still could be work related but more on a higher level like how they feel about the companies vision, or their ideas on the product that we are working on.
But also about personal stuff which really helps me in understanding people better. It’s not always easy because people don’t always feel comfortable talking about those things, so i usually open up a bit about myself. More over, i work at an e-commerce company (bol.com) where i work with software engineers, which are overall a special kind of breed, mostly with a hint of autistic tendencies and not always good at softskills. Luckily my team is quite good at being honest and open, but also sometimes without a filter. But once you get to know a bit better and understand them it really helps in the relationship and building a team.
Applying thoughts to personal life
After reading the book it also got me thinking about certain stories from my personal life. For example, one couple seemed very happy on the outside and although they were struck by the death of their unborn child, seemed very strong. But a while later, after they had moved, i got a call from my friend and wanted to talk. To my surprise he confessed to have cheated on his wife several times and that they were having struggles. Now, from the outside it seemed nothing was wrong, but we really didn’t know them for real i guess. Although this is always a hard to thing find out. The good thing is that they are still together.
I also have the same feeling about my father, although he cared for us very much and was always there, he never shared much about his youth or upbringing. Sometimes a few fragments here and there. I guess both my parents were like that, never being able to share or help us with emotions or tell stories, which reflects a lot on myself. So altough they were my parents they were also in some sense strangers to me because i never knew what they really felt and what motivated them.
Now i won’t do a deep dive with everyone i meet but i think the most important part is to keep an open mind. It’s very easy to draw conclusions. For example, when you see a young man with a middle-eastern complexion in an expensive car, you think: drugdealer (or something like that), but when you see a white kid in that same car you think: borrowing daddy’s car? Most likely it’s nothing like that. I guess being bombarded with (social) media opinions, bits&bites and screaming headlines makes it hard to keep an open mind.
Even my son, 11 years, already has a certain mindset towards certain types of people because that’s what the news shows him and what he hears in school and from people. And i have to keep telling him that certain behaviour or look doesn’t imply a bad thing, just something different. Unfortunalty certain people keep proving stereotypes right which makes my job as parent even harder.
For me it’s clear that you have to really talk to people to understand them and be respectfull (which can be quite hard) but that something people will remain strangers, no matter how close you are with them.