Power Players

Malcolm Gladwell: You can't know someone in 10 seconds or on social media, and it's dangerous to try

Malcolm Gladwell: How curiosity can change the world we're living in
Malcolm Gladwell: How curiosity can change the world we're living in

We need to get better at talking with, listening to and learning from each other, says Malcolm Gladwell, host of the popular podcast "Revisionist History."

"You can't read somebody and make sense of someone in 10 seconds. Don't even try," says Gladwell, whose September book, "Talking to Strangers," analyzes the inadequacies in people's capacity to do so.

"The point of my book was that we need patience and humility when it comes to dealing with strangers. We need to understand that we're not always right," Gladwell says. "And we have to understand that there is no reason to be in a hurry to jump to a conclusion about someone we don't know."

When people make snap judgments, they often fall back on ingrained biases and stereotypes, he says — an all too salient point amid the current outcry against racism in America. 

And there are other examples. Twitter for instance, is "designed for misunderstanding," Gladwell says. 

By limiting the scope of communication (Twitter, for example, allows to 280 characters per Tweet), "you are going by definition to get misunderstandings," Gladwell says.  (Twitter declined to comment.) 

"Somehow we forget that and we start raging at each other on social media without understanding it's possibly the worst place imaginable for understanding another."

One way to avoid making snap judgments is to be "willing to entertain a variety of different explanations for what you're seeing," Gladwell says.

For example, "somebody is rude to you," he says. "That could mean you did something you didn't understand, that prompted them. It could mean they're rude. It could mean they're having a terrible day that has nothing to do with you. It could mean they just have bad manners. It could mean they're on the spectrum, and what you're reading as rudeness is not rudeness at all, but rather someone who just has a different set of social gifts."

Another is to be curious. 

"We're in a very ideologically divided moment in our country's history," Gladwell says. "And a lot of people on both sides automatically dismiss the ideas of the other. And that's insane."

"I'm a dyed-in-the wool liberal," Gladwell says, "but by no means do I believe all the best ideas are on the left. I am not even sure half the good ideas are on the left."

GIadwell says he goes out of his way to be exposed to ideas on the other side of the spectrum "because I'm curious. ... I read The Wall Street Journal. Even though my politics could not be more different," he says of the business newspaper, whose editorial positions tend to be conservative. "Why? Because I feel I need to know what they say. And I'm curious. And there are a bunch of good ideas there."

"There are some people who... have a kind of instinctive opposition to that kind of curiosity. And that's a problem," says Gladwell.

"We can't have a society where we dismiss the ideas of other people without even bothering to find out what they are first."

"There's a lot of racism going on. There is also a lot of lack of curiosity," Gladwell says. "[I]n order to listen to someone carefully and with empathy, you must be curious about them, right? You must understand that there's someone worth listening to and open your mind to them."

"The world is a lot more complex than we imagine in our first impressions," says Gladwell. So it's imperative to develop "a habit of withholding judgment until you have exhausted all possible or all relevant explanations."

"It's the simplest lesson in the world. But it is so routinely violated, particularly in a world where half the communication we're doing is in these places like Twitter, where they're designed for misunderstanding."

These ideas ought not to be relegated just to interacting with strangers, either, Gladwell says. Disagreements with friends, colleagues and loved ones require similar thoughtfulness.  

"In the truest sense, if you're discussing something in a serious way for the first time with a loved one, you are talking to a stranger. Right? You're talking to a part of your parents that you haven't encountered before," Gladwell says. "And so I think the same rules apply, which is take the time to understand why they have the positions they have and be gentle."

See also:

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Black business owner whose Dallas restaurant was vandalized: 'I call this a luxury tax'

Illumen Capital's Dodson on combating racial bias in asset allocation and investing
Illumen Capital's Dodson on combating racial bias in asset allocation and investing