Talking to strangers…
I just finished reading the new exciting book by Malcolm Gladwell. The core subject is ‘ what we should know about the people we don’t know’ as printed on the cover. The book is an intellectual adventure to understand what conflicts and misunderstandings come up in our conversations with strangers. The tools and strategies we use seem to be inadequate, according to Mr Gladwell. While I do not want to review the book here, I want to provide my insights in dealing with strangers. I always thought that it is elementary to converse with strangers. As I grew up, I realised that it is not easy.
According to me, there are three types of conversations.
_ Casual: We meet strangers while travelling by train, bus and flights or sitting in a park. These conversations start with a simple smile and sometimes can go on for hours based on the interest. I was sitting next to two elderly ‘mamis’ while travelling in Shatabdi from Bangalore to Chennai a few years back. Both of them covered local and global social, economic and geopolitical issues in five hours of travel. I am sure they would not have got in touch with each other though they promised each other at the end of the journey. In my recent visit to California, my brother in law was always checking with the Uber drivers their country of origin, the number of years of residence, their visa status etc. Some of them responded while others did not. He always loves to have conversations with strangers and needs to find the base and make the connection. I also overhear many amusing conversations while I travel on local buses and trains in India. The subjects include politics, religion, entertainment and cricket. I remember the book,” The Argumentative Indian” by Dr.Amartya Sen. These days Social media tools have come to rescue too many now. I know a person who needs to forward at least ten messages to What’sup groups before he brushes his teeth in the morning.
While I think dealing with a stranger is easy, it is complicated in reality. I have landed into challenges in dealing with strangers on several occasions. There are also negative impacts of these chats. I realise there is a cultural dimension to these conversations in this globalised world.
_Personal: Some strangers get into personal conversations. They find it easy to give advice as long as they need not follow. Some aunties want to check the marital status if they see potential brides and bridegrooms in social events and marriages. My grandmother always wanted to talk to strangers. She never regretted the impact. The first question still is comfortable. It is the second questions that land the conversation into difficulty. Definition of personal space is changing, and it has different shapes and colours now. Even the small children in the house also n demand private space.
_Professional: These are usually work-related. I want to categorise them into two. Some very positive and some very negative. Interview situations, resource actions, recognition discussions etc. are some examples. There are a structure and a process from such conversations. I shall also include sales calls in this category. The word’ cold call’ is also very prevalent in the sales teams.
I want to talk about my first job interview in Mumbai. It was a disaster. I learnt many lessons in that first conversation. During my corporate days, I had an opportunity to meet Dr Abdul Kalam with an executive. My colleague thought it was straightforward to talk to Dr Kalam, and the rehearsed strategy did not work. The entire conversation was very amusing, and we were at the receiving end most of the time. In my career, there were also two occasions where I had to communicate the bad news to my colleagues. I became a stranger when I had to deliver the messages very cold.
While I do not want to offer any recommendations while dealing with strangers, I would like to leave a couple of thoughts.
Sometimes the best conversations between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger. ( Gladwell) It is always good to stick to the first principles.
Sanskrit Poet Kalidasa nicely articulates the core principles of communication in the following verse.
वागर्थाविव संपृक्तौ वागर्थप्रतिपत्तये|
जगतः पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ|
(words and meanings are inseparable as Parvathi and Siva — parents of the universe)
( The first verse of “Raghu Vamsa” by Sanskrit Poet, Kalidasa, believed to have lived in the 5th Century AD)
Any new thoughts?