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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

School Admissions and the Difficulty of Meeting Strangers

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, should be compulsory reading for anyone working in school admissions or enrolment management.

Meandering its way through a set of stories from history, psychology, and infamous legal cases, Gladwell’s central thesis is that strangers are easily misunderstood, hard to decipher, and that the tools and strategies that we use to make sense of people we don’t know are often inadequate.

A photograph of a man sitting on a tram
Gladwell: We may not be as good as we think at understanding people we don’t know.

Digging deeper into these curious and sometimes surprising narratives, Gladwell suggests that we can identify three human tendencies that contribute to our predicament: (1) the default to truth that will always give the person the benefit of any doubt even in the face of “red flags”; (2) the illusion of transparency that will cause us to think that we can see directly into the heart of a person based on little to no evidence; and (3) the failure to understand the stranger in context. In other words, we look at the stranger and jump to conclusions without first understanding the stranger’s world.

To cut a long story short: strangers are not easy, just as we are not easy. They, like us, are nuanced, complex and require care and attention.

Rather than simply encouraging us to give up our quest and resign ourselves to ignorance and mistrust, however, Gladwell concludes that we should “accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers” and be mindful of these limits when we are trying to understand people that we do not know.

Strangers walk into our schools every single day. Most of us have become used to trusting our judgement, reading the signs, joining the dots and interpreting the situation in front of us. We make decisions and judgements that will determine where a student does and does not attend school. We deliver verdicts on good or bad “fit”.

Gladwell and the stories that support his thesis are a poignant and timely reminder of how difficult it is to truly understand people that we do not know, how carefully we need to tread, and how - in the words of Anthony Gottlieb - it is our duty to be “thoughtful, humble and mindful of context” before jumping to conclusions.

Photo by Chuan on Unsplash


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