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Randy Mayeux poses with Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Talking to Strangers” at his home in Richardson. Mayeux’s home was damaged during a tornado, and the book helped him decide which company to hire.

DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Talking to strangers is suddenly a major problem in the Dallas-Richardson tornado alley. Now that the streets are mostly cleared, dozens of roofers and contractors are going door-to-door looking for victims, er, customers.

“A solid parade of strangers wanders through our yard, up to the house, despite ‘No Soliciting’ signs, and they argue with me when I tell them I don’t need their help.”

The speaker is my work colleague, Kerrie Wolfson, who keeps The Watchdog up to date on life in what she calls the “75230 Tornado Damage Home Tour.” Her home was one of about 800 damaged.

She says, “I am dubious about anybody who just shows up — and they have — telling me they’re ready to do the work. ‘Just sign here.’ It’s like the wild West with horse thieves roaming the streets.”

The Watchdog is always looking for ways to fend off human annoyances. After the tornadoes hit, I published an updated version of my cheat sheet showing how to hire someone for cleanup and repairs who is both competent and honest.

After reading it, Randy Mayeux of Richardson launched a tweet my way:

“Your column, (and my reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers), helped my wife and me make better decisions for post-tornado damage. Thank you.”

A mention in the same sentence with the brilliant writer Gladwell is quite the honor. I contacted Randy to learn more about the new book and how it helped him.

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Malcolm Gladwell

Glad I did because not only did I get to meet Randy, but I, too, learned from Gladwell’s new book. I believe it can help many of those 800 homeowners whose houses were damaged — plus everyone else.

That’s why I’m announcing here the birth of The Watchdog Book Club. Let me tell you about it.

With Randy, turns out I couldn’t have a better mentor. For 21 years, he’s led a monthly business book club at the venerable Park City Club. It’s called “First Friday Book Synopsis.

Members (it’s open to the public) pay $31 for breakfast, parking and to listen to Randy summarize two business books he’s read in the past month.

He told me the portion of my cheat sheet that helped him most was the reminder to seek competing bids and check references before signing any work contract.

He said the part of Gladwell’s book that helped him most is this idea: Gladwell writes, “Those who meet people make bad decisions about their trustworthiness and competence based on their interaction with such strangers because they trust them when the data says not to.”

This is interesting. I tend to trust people until they prove otherwise. Unfortunately, by the time ‘otherwise’ comes, it may be too late.

Here’s how Randy applied it post-tornado: A giant live oak fell on his roof. Randy needed the tree cut down, then needed to hire a roofer. A tree cutter wandered in his yard with an offer to help. Randy hired him for $500 to cut it down. When the cutter was finished, he told Randy another tree in his yard needed to go. He’d do that for $1,700.

That’s when Gladwell’s lesson kicked in. Instead, he decided to call an arborist. Although he had trusted the cutter, now he wanted more data.

The tree expert declared the surviving tree safe and healthy. Randy saved $1,700 and a beautiful tree in a neighborhood that needs to save every one it can.

Looking for a roofer, he checked references and ratings.

“We feel total confidence in the roofing contractor we hired,” he says happily.

Fingers crossed.

Watchdog Book Club

Let us now convene the first virtual meeting of The Watchdog Book Club. I’ll play Randy and give you a quick synopsis in a few hundred words about Gladwell’s book. (No breakfast or parking, but you save $31.)

“Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?” Gladwell asks.

He cites a study of judges who must decide based on quick impressions whether someone accused of a crime should get released from jail on bail or stay locked up.

The study found that judges often made the wrong decision. They released people who went on to commit other crimes or didn’t show up for trial, but kept in jail those who’d follow the rules. A computer database given only the age and rap sheet of each defendant did a better job predicting than judges who do it every day.

“Why are we so bad at detecting lies?” Gladwell asks. “You’d think we’d be good at it. Logic says it would be very useful for human beings to know when they are being deceived.

“Evolution, over many millions of years, should have favored people with the ability to pick up the subtle signs of deception. But it hasn’t.”

Our problem, he suggests, is that when we have doubts, we usually “default to truth.” That’s what I do. I assume everyone I deal with is honest until proven otherwise. By then, though, it could be too late. This is a problem.

The reason why Bernie Madoff, who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history for decades, got away with it for so long is because investors, regulators, analysts and reporters had suspicions but they defaulted to truth. How could be this a fake? He seems like he knows what he’s doing? But data would prove otherwise.

In the Madoff case, everyone defaulted to truth, except for Harry Markopolos. He was the one who set his feelings aside and studied the data. He tried to warn others. But they defaulted to truth.

When Markopolos analyzes a business investment, he doesn’t want to meet the principals. He doesn’t want his personal impressions to get in the way. He only wants to consider the data.

“I want to find the truth,” he’s quoted as saying. “I don’t want to have a favorable opinion of somebody who glad-hands me because that could only negatively affect my case.”

In Randy’s case, he tried to do the same. For that, he keeps a beautiful tree in a neighborhood that needs to save every one it can.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about Randy Mayeux’s business book club, visit FirstFridayBookSynopsis.com or 15MinuteBusinessBooks.com.

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