Reading audiences as an informal educator
No matter how you slice it, the initial moments in an interaction matter. And facilitating social interactions between humans, as well as objects— that’s what we do as museum educators, right? So much of our success hinges on whether we know our audience, and as we have seen from previous posts, you can never know enough! You pack away so much information about your visitors, including tips and tricks on how to apply said knowledge. But in the moment, what actually happens?
You can never go wrong with a solid, ambiguous anecdote. Say there was a program at a Science Museum that employed educators to interact with an audience consisting of all ages on a daily basis. These educators had a breadth of knowledge in the scientific concepts relating to the museum (and beyond!), and were constantly trained on how to interact with the public. They would prepare, practice, and shape themselves into the perfect educator for the space. However, when it came time to actually interact in informal ways with visitors, much of what the educators did came down to the few moments at the beginning of the interaction, where they would glean knowledge about the visitor, and from which they would then quickly dive into their breadth of knowledge and retrieve what they thought would be interesting or pertinent to that specific visitor.
What was that all about?
Phew, that sounds exhausting! Believe it or not, this happens every day both inside and out of the museum world. This technique and psychological methodology is called “thin slicing.” No, it does not refer to a small slice of pie, but instead refers to the brief period of time when a person makes a judgement about someone, a time that often does not seem to rely on critical thinking. Dr. Nalini Ambady, late professor at Stanford, did multiple studies on the art of thin slicing, or snap judgements, starting after seminal research in the 1980s. In one such study, she stated that thin slices, “…are thought to be based on tacit, implicit knowledge that makes verbal explanations and reasoning unnecessary.”  From the outside, this method seems like quite a subjective phenomena that should not be used in practice for accuracy. Many that have written extensively about the subject, including author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, refer to the fact that these snap judgements do not always work. There is also extensive criticism from authors spanning from the Piaget Society to The New York Times that insist that this “high-speed trend”  is not a reality, and that accepting and consciously thinking about decisions will bring about more positive consequences. 
However, Ambady, Gladwell, and many others have found through scientific and anecdotal research that thin slices can be accurate, and sometimes even predictable in certain situations.  From psychologists and therapists , art history professionals , and even our educators at the aforementioned Science Museum, the “gut feelings,” “intuitions,” “rapid cognitions,” or “thin slices” that are made prove to be accurate useful.
With all of the critics and it being a fairly new line of inquiry, is thin slicing something we should worry about in museums? The answer: yes! This technique and methodology is already being applied, and so we might as well understand it and use it to our advantage when interacting with all audiences. It may go by other terms, as Dr. Katie Best describes the work of docents doing this same work as “strategy in practice.”  Those that are on the front line at museums are the most likely to already be slicing it up, but that does not mean it is not beneficial for those behind the scenes as well— some of us may be training those front line staff, and understanding the thin slice process can make our programs that much more audience-centered. This is not to say that thin slicing should be used without abandon— instead, here are some tips and tricks on how to mindfully thin slice your day away:
- Educate yourself further on what other decisions people make in this quick moments of rapid cognition— this can help you further understand what thin slices you make yourself.
- Know that thin slices are based on “‘thick sliced’ long-term study,”  meaning that they are taken from large swaths of knowledge (whether you know it or not!)
- Understand that this thick slice can include implicit bias and stereotypes,  so reflect on your own opinions about other people, or take one of the myriad tests from Harvard’s Project Implicit to learn more about how you interact with, and ultimately thin slice, others
- Attend an improv class! The rules of improv link closely with the methodology of thin slicing, and can make you a better educator and communicator– just as Jen Oleniczak of The Engaging Educator promotes in NYC!
- Practice makes perfect! Many of the professionals mentioned in these studies have worked for years on their ability to rapidly intuit in a social interaction. Spend time with the public as much as possible and with your mind wide open to gain the experience necessary to thin slice well (and this is a constantly adaptive process, so do not feel disgruntled if you fail the first few times— try, try again!) 
No matter how you slice it…
How you interact with a visitor can make or break the rest of the experience. Is this the only skill necessary to be a museum educator or professional? Not at all, but it can definitely help.
Quick— What do you think?