“Perhaps most of us are primed to view data-based rather than consensus-based decisions as counter to group harmony.”
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Put aside the fact that Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers is about strangers. This week, I’m going to talk about myself.
You may be thinking: Isn’t that what you do every week?
You have a point. I only mention it because it seems a smidge more self-centred in this case, and I felt compelled to say something.
With that out of the way, let’s move on.
I was listening to Talking to Strangers Episode 3 (yes, I listen to my own show), and we were talking about the Holy Fool Archetype: “…a social misfit—eccentric, off-putting, sometimes even crazy—who nonetheless has access to the truth.” It’s the child from the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes who declares the king isn’t wearing clothes while everyone else is silent out of fear they’ll be deemed unfit for their job. In more modern times, it’s the whistleblowers. Who else?
The description of the Holy Fool sounds strangely familiar. A social misfit with access to the truth.
Is he talking about me?
If you listened to the episode, you heard me declare that I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I think most people are genuinely good, and trying to do their best from moment to moment. In other words, the opposite of the Holy Fool—the rule, not the exception.
The description of this archetype is suspiciously close to the presumptions made about engineers—off-putting, eccentric, social misfits, truth-tellers. These stereotypes are prevalent. On more than one occasion, after mentioning that I am an engineer (gasp!), I’ve had people list them off to me, albeit using more colourful language. On one occasion, I had someone simply stand up and walk away without another word. Gladwell also claims that Holy Fools are “…free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted.” That almost sounds like a job description. In Canada, engineers are not only required to point out consequences if engineering decisions are disregarded, but also required to report unethical decisions. As you can imagine, adhering to this duty is not always welcome.
Engineers are not alone. Many people choose professions that require them to deliver unfun news that is sometimes easier and more pleasant to ignore. During the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the US President, became a polarizing figure. On one hand he is a highly qualified scientist tasked with responding to an unprecedented health emergency, basing recommendations on the best available data. On the other hand, he is the deliverer of bad news that bums people out. So much so, that some people threatened to literally kill the messenger.
If you’d prefer a less divisive example, this phenomenon is more entertainingly depicted in the movie Don't Look Up, about two astronomers’ tragicomic attempts to rally the world to stop a catastrophic asteroid strike.
Granted, Talking to Strangers isn’t about careers. It explains how most humans tend to assume strangers are truthful, a default that carries the risk of being deceived in exchange for efficient communication and social coordination. On the flip side, the suspicious person isn’t deceived, but is a social weirdo. Sure, Gladwell isn’t talking about nerds versus cool kids. But in another way, maybe he is. Maybe there is a reason that the fact-filled, math or science enthusiast is often depicted as a social misfit. Perhaps most of us are primed to view data-based rather than consensus-based decisions as counter to group harmony.
As a math/science enthusiast myself, I can’t always relate to someone that outright rejects a data-based conclusion simply because it contradicted their intuition or beliefs. Perhaps on a subconscious level, it seems like they’re being called a liar. And in a default to truth culture, most people both trust and assume they’ll be trusted. If that’s the case, it’s understandable the someone might act defensive, angry, or dismissive to numbers and the people who calculate them. For me, data isn’t emotional. Unless we're talking about exciting, which they certainly can be.
While it is never pleasant to have someone yell-speaking at you about how your chosen profession marks you as a fundamentally flawed human being, it sort of comes with the territory. Maybe some people don’t trust engineers because it seems like engineers don’t trust them. Or maybe they’re just having a bad day.
I’m not making a good case for choosing a technical career. So why do I do it? On balance, I find it fulfilling and interesting. Like I said, I dig the maths and sciences. Lucky for me, humans are great at living contradiction. In my work life I may sometimes embody the Holy Fool archetype, but I inherently trust others in my personal life. A little bit of nerd with a side of cool kid.
Do you feel like the Holy Fool at work? Does this differ from how you approach strangers in your personal life?
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