#Book Review: How to Know a Person

Author: David Brooks

How to Know a Person is a popular book recommended as part of our small book club here in the US. I enjoyed it apart from Kindle confusion with percentages of reading done because I did not realize that the book has an index and a large appendix with references, so I wondered how much more is left to be said about the topic and whether the book is a form of an encyclopedia. But, otherwise, it was a good book with plenty of references and I ended up with a reference list at the end of it.

How to Know a Person is about having meaningful conversations and making sure we genuinely listen to people and make them feel heard and seen. It is something I can get on board with and something I have also advocated for a while as editor-in-chief of the Corporate Communications journal. I wrote several editorials about listening, see here and here.

Brooks makes some compelling statements throughout the book such as that experience is not what happens to us but what we do with it, which I read on page 61, and I stopped reading to think about it. We are indeed often slaves of our past and let our past block our progress. This happens far too often to far too many of us. So, the book, in some chapters, also delve into early socialization, again something I am on board with due to my research also looking at the impact of early socialization on leadership and behavioral styles. I wrote about this in the context of women in mass communication industries, lived experiences in the advertising industry, leadership in advertising, women in public relations,  office culture in public relations, and also several others including journalism (for a full reference list see my personal website).

I also thought that the notion of different people seeing different things in the same setting was interesting. On page 62, an interesting example is used where the author says that an interior designer will see a different thing than a security professional when walking into the same room. The author then sinks into postmodernism and talks about all people being different, which I do not agree with because whilst it is true that different people will interpret the same situation differently, these people often belong to the same group, i.e., many interior designers will see similar things and many security professionals will see the same thing or something similar. We are individual creatures, but we also belong to groups with similar characteristics. That does not mean we cannot belong to several different groups as we age and develop our skills, lives, etc. Of course, we do, but as social science research, particularly behavioral one, shows, people can be often put in groups, and we do often find common themes and patterns in human behavior based on joint characteristics. So, this was a bit of a peculiar aspect of the book because Brooks from one side, often cites psychological behavioral research, but from the other side, then goes into postmodernism. But this does not take anything away from the book, which is interesting and largely based on literature and personal conversational and journalistic experiences of the author.

The chapter that speaks of the impact of technology and loneliness that technology created is also very compelling and I agreed with the author. I was dismayed by statistics on how many people feel nobody knows them and have no friends, but not at all surprised. I also thought the comment on people not noticing each other is interesting, particularly the comment on the commute, which I also noticed in the UK many years ago when I suddenly realized nobody was having a conversation but staring at their phones.

Some interesting personality tests are cited in the book, Big Five personality tests and Myers-Briggs personality assessments, which have free versions online to explore.

Weave: The Social Fabric project is an interesting reference the author mentions. I did not know about this project, but it is worth exploring because it focuses on lost connections and divisions in the US, a problem acutely present elsewhere in the world.

All in all, whether you agree with everything the author says or not, this is an interesting and well-referenced book worth reading.

Thank you for reading!

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