How well do you know strangers?

 The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight is the belief that I know you inside and out, all of your dreams, hopes, fears, weird tics, how you really want to be able to dance like Patrick Swayze, etc. but, you don’t know me at all, I am too nuanced of a human for you to peg down. You probably even think my favorite color is pink.

Better explained,” It 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. (Gladwell)”

I first came across this insight in Malcolm Gladwell’sTalking to Strangers.” The insight conveys that “We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.”

And wow, after reading this section of the book I was struck by how often that is how I approach my life in how I view and deal with people. And how selfish that view is, to honestly believe that I alone have enough knowledge is embarrassing.

An example that Gladwell used was how several world leaders, such as the Earl of Halifax and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had met Hitler prior to WWII and had spent hours with him. Both of them after all of that time with Hitler believed that he had no desire for war and desired to work towards peace. Which we all now know in hindsight, was a gross underestimation of Hitler. Interestingly, two people who had never met Hitler pegged him for what he was, “a duplicitous thug.” Winston Churchill and Duff Cooper both knew the least about Hitler, yet they ended up being the most correct about him.

Far too often I believe that I know all of the pieces of the puzzle and it just isn’t true. Such as is the case when I am driving, if a particular type of vehicle flies by me (when I am already going over the speed limit) I make characterizations about them….and so often it has to do with their character. Not taking into account they may be sick and trying to make it home, their kid may have been left at school by the school bus, or a number of other reasons.

The day my grandmother died, when I found out that she was dying I was about an hour away. So, yes, I did speed excessively and somewhat aggressively tailed people that weren’t going fast enough for me. I even honked (which I never do) at a lady who was sitting at a green light. I wasn’t angry with people for going the speed limit, yet in that moment, breaking the law seemed irrelevant-I had to get to my grandmother in time. I am sure though, to the lady I honked at and the numerous other people that I tailed, I seemed like a typical young person in a hurry without regard for others. Which perhaps they attributed to my character.

My aim is to always live with grace with people, as hard as that can be. And I truly believe that a large part of that is believing-and listening to what other people say about themselves.

“We need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility. (Gladwell)” 


Gladwell, Malcolm. Talking to Strangers. NYC: Little, Brown and Company, 2019. Print book.