I was excited to read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers” to learn more about the interpersonal dynamics we often face when meeting strangers. At 350 pages, I expected to learn many interesting observations that would help define our meeting of strangers. Instead, Gladwell really introduces only five dynamics, two of which the average person will never, or very rarely, face.
Gladwell’s first observation is that humans have a very hard time telling when a stranger is lying. Gladwell describes how humans almost always default to believing what a stranger says. He defines this as the “truth default theory.” We hold the assumption that people are honest. It takes a large trigger to change this belief. Gladwell gives example after example of how so-called experts don’t catch people lying, and he makes the argument that we may actually get a more honest assessment of a person if we never actually meet them, but rather just read their work. However, Gladwell states that we are better off defaulting to believing people are truthful because this dynamic provides us the ability to form efficient communities and social coordination. In other words, our society would suck if we were predisposed to question everyone’s honesty.
Gladwell’s next observation has to do with transparency. He defines transparency as “believing that people’s behavior and how they look on the outside provides us with a true understanding as to how they feel on the inside.” The book cites many examples as to how this is not the case. Judges and other experts often misjudge people brought before them. Liars often don’t act like liars, and honest people sometimes come across as liars because they don’t behave as we expect them to. One example was Amanda Knox, the college student from Seattle who was convicted of participating in the murder of her roommate while attending school in Italy. Gladwell states that what Amanda Knox was only guilty of was behaving weirdly, and that she behaved weirdly because, well, she was kind of weird. She wasn’t guilty of murder. Gladwell points out that our world systematically discriminates against people who, unintentionally, don’t behave as society would expect them to.
The next concept that Gladwell writes about is coupling, which basically means that a decision or a behavior is coupled to a certain place, i.e., it’s the notion that a stranger’s behavior is tightly connected to place and context. Gladwell explains how we often miss the impact a place or circumstances has on a stranger’s behavior, leading us to form incorrect conclusions. In essence, we ignore the context in which the person is operating. This magnifies the two prior mistakes, defaulting to truth and believing people are transparent. Add up all three, and we often misread strangers.
Two other dynamics brought forward by Gladwell seem interesting but less relevant in day-to-day interactions. Gladwell goes into great depth on the impact alcohol has on behavior. “Alcohol is an agent of transformation; it obliterates our true self.” Gladwell gives examples of drunk people doing stupid stuff. He states that “adding alcohol to the process of understanding another person’s intentions makes a hard problem downright impossible.” He also goes into a bit of defense of drunk young men who have taken advantage of drunk young women, stating that combining a drunk, 19-year-old man with a hypersexualized frat party is an invitation to disaster. Seems like an obvious cop-out.
Gladwell also includes a section on torture, concluding that torturing people will likely lead to them providing inaccurate or misleading information. No shit. My guess is that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld may disagree here. I also guess that few other people get the chance to make the better choice of not torturing people.
In summary, Gladwell advises that people cannot be prejudged: They don’t behave the way we expect them to. Thus, we should accept our limits when deciphering others. Gladwell also points out that because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, when things go wrong, we often blame the stranger.
I found “Talking to Strangers” to be a lot of reading for a few basic points, a couple of which were pretty obvious to me. I doubt I will stare at strangers suspiciously going forward.
We could all start yelling “fake news” at strangers, but FOX News already has the market on that. I think I’ll stick to naively trusting strangers, at least until they tell me how great Donald Trump is.
Read more in the May 6-12, 2020 issue.