Talking to Strangers: Malcom Gladwell explains.
What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.
We judge strangers all the time. Whether at work, at a party or merely walking past someone on the street, we engage with people that have completely different perspectives, backgrounds and assumptions. It’s natural to try and interpret strangers by their words, intentions and characters — it’s the only thing we can grasp onto. But turns out, we are incredibly bad at understanding them.
For example. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain travelled to meet Adolf Hitler. In fear of a war, he wanted to get a sense of him and what the likelihood of another world war was. He left Germany thinking Hitler was great, confident that there was to be no war. He was very wrong.
This book is an exploration of what we know about the people we don’t know. How we misjudge and misunderstand strangers, which sometimes leads to terrible consequences. A teaching of tolerance and patience with how we deal with others.
1. We can’t spot deception. By default, human nature chooses truth.
We assume truthfulness until the evidence pointing toward deception is overwhelming. Take the case of Ana Montes for example — an intelligence analyst and a top employee for the US Defence Intelligence Agency, also a Cuban spy, who handed over many intelligence secrets to Havana. There was some suspicion, that being her Cuban viewpoints and her taking of unknown phone calls during a crisis. But beyond suspicion, there was no evidence. What’s more likely — the analyst working with you is one of the most damaging spies in US history, or she was just a little odd? Only in hindsight did the red flags become clear.
“The issues with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them. It is that there is something wrong with us”
2. Some of us are better than others at spotting deception, but assuming the truth is actually important for society to function.
But is it actually good if society were to spot fraud and deception, or assume it, so easily? Assuming the truth serves the majority of us well. In fact, Tim Levine (an America communication professor) notes that in life, lies are relatively rare. Most interactions are fundamentally honest, and to default to thinking deception is damaging. An issue today is the problem of deep fakes (pictures). Can we actually believe what we see? I picture used to say 1000 words, if it was on paper, it was evidence. Now, with wide access to photo editing and manipulation programs, anything could be fake. What’s worse, trusting in a photo that might not be real? Or not trusting any photo ever again because there is a chance it is fake? Tough one — but probably the latter. After all, lies are relatively rare and if we exude any evidence we may have, how will we ever validate anything?
3. Life isn’t an episode of Friends. People’s faces don’t tell the whole story.
In Friends, you can turn the sound off and still completely follow the plot — what’s happening is written all over their faces. They make their feelings transparent, where their demeanour reveals their feelings completely. And it’s one of the primary expectations we have when judging strangers, which can obviously be completely misleading. Read this BBC article on why our facial expressions don’t reflect our feelings.
4. We think we’re awesome at our ability to judge strangers.
Turns out AI is way better at it than we are. A study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics titled “Human Decisions and Machine Predictions” examined bail decisions in New York. An AI program was given the same information that judges received (age and criminal record) and let it decide who of the 554 689 defendants should receive bail. The defendants released by the judges were 25% more likely to commit a crime than those defendants that the compute chose. Like all of us, judges thought they could judge the stranger based on the look in their eye and short conversation, ruling on their first impressions of the defendant — which is just flimsy evidence. The AI used the hard evidence with no emotional ruling.
“We think we can see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues”
5. When we think strangers aren’t being transparent, we easily misjudge them.
Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? The shock of the accusation sometimes get’s you quite flustered. “How can they think that I did this?”. It makes us nervous, how do we prove it wasn’t us. There is no evidence saying we did it, but we also have no evidence absolving us from it. We think that liars look away, twiddle their hair and look agitated. But we cannot judge by this — plenty of liars will look you in the eye and lie to your face and plenty of honest people will look like they have a secret to hide when in fact, it’s just shock and nerves.
A case study: Sandra Bland, a victim of misjudgement.
It’s 10 July 2015, Sandra Bland, an African-American woman was pulled over by a Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change. Bland pointed out she’d only changed lanes because Encinia had aggressively driven up behind her and she wanted to get out of his way.
Bland made her irritation clear, why was she being pulled over for something that he induced? When Bland finished explaining herself, Encinia asked “Are you done?”. Clearly a provocation.
Bland lit a cigarette to calm her nerves. Encinia insisted she put it out. Bland refused, it was well within her right to smoke a cigarette. He demanded she step out the car. She refused. Encinia started shouting, threatening her with a stun gun. He dragged her out and slammed her into the ground. Bland was locked up.
3 days later, Bland committed suicide in police custody. Read her story.
The police practise of pulling people over in high-crime areas for small traffic violations to look for greater crimes is not uncommon. But in a low-crime stretch of open highway? What was Encinia’s reason? Did he just abandon his assumption of the truth when he shouldn’t have? Bland didnt seem to Encinia as transparent, although she was only telling the truth, her agitiation was merely a sign of stress not criminal intent. Encinia thought he knew how to talk to strangers and judge them. It is important to drop pre-concieved assumptions in order to accurately judge someone.
Does this story sound familiar. Sadly, far too familiar.
The key message:
To our better judgement of ourselves, we are ill-equipped to understand strangers. We can’t detect lies because we are programmed to assume the truth, and when we do assume a lie (against better judgement) we are often wrong. We believe we can judge strangers based on the very little evidence we gather. The result of this misplaced condfience is that we don’t invest enough time and patience into truly listening to and understanding each other.