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Talking With Strangers

Relevant magazine recently published an interview with acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell about his newest book, Talking With Strangers. While I can’t necessarily recommend the book, I would like to share some thoughts from the interview:

Research shows that we have an inflated opinion of our ability to size people up, so we are not as objective as we would like to believe in our dealings with others. The solution to this problem is found in deep listening - not making snap judgments, but hearing each individual’s actual circumstances and specific needs. Listening like this could transform encounters with people in homelessness, conversations about politics, and many opportunities to know others and meet their needs.

But the need for deeper listening is not just backed by research, it is evident in scripture. Gladwell points to the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:5-13), in which Jesus did not make assumptions about this Roman centurion, but listened to what he said and focused on him as a person. This type of personal attention and care is frequent in Jesus’s interactions with others, and it is also often stated as an exhortation throughout scripture (i.e. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” - James 1:19)

In the interview, Gladwell posits that we have a lot to learn from religious gatherings and practices about how to talk with strangers. In our culture, on social media, and often in our daily lives, we guard ourselves against those who are different from us, preferring the comfort of like-minded individuals over challenging or diverse opinions. But for Christians, this cannot be so - in following Christ, we are called out of comfort and into the lives of others.

Gladwell muses, “I always wonder whether what we’re seeing is the consequence of a retreat from religiosity and spirituality in our society.... If you don’t have the reinforcement of religious practice saying that you have a moral obligation to take care of the poor and suffering, or to remind you that you need to be humble in the eyes of God, maybe people become a lot less respectful of others, or people become a lot less cautious and humble about putting forth their own opinions.”

This problem is especially prevalent among college students, because campus so easily becomes an echo chamber. Why practice deep listening or humble conversation when everyone you associate with thinks the same as you? This is one reason it is so crucial for college students to be part of a faith community - and why things like our Generations gatherings (the first Sunday of each month at 6pm) are so important - in a world where each person’s own opinion is seen as their highest authority, it is massively important to encounter those who are different.

Gladwell observes, “If you remove the Sunday ritual where you are reminded of how much you had in common, and all you’re left with is Monday through Friday where you don’t have that much in common, that’s a problem. There’s something incredibly, powerfully, socially important about bringing people together on a regular basis and reminding them that they are all part of a community.”

Whether you are a college student or an empty-nester, someone who is homeless or living in a mansion; no matter where you fall on the socio-economic spectrum, no matter your racial or ethnic background, no matter if you are old or young, we all can grow by being with one another and listening deeply.

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