Talking to Strangers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
This book, a forensic analysis of the dynamics at play when strangers meet, sets out to deconstruct the widespread myths that have made this commonplace human interaction a potential flashpoint. Proceeding on the premise that ‘strangers are not easy‘ to understand, the book refutes the prevailing assumption that people’s true feelings and intentions can be read from their superficial appearances and emotional expressions; on the contrary, the book exposes the flaws in the general notion that ‘we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues‘. Cautioning against passing quick judgments on strangers, the book argues that ‘the thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile‘, and ‘the search to understand a stranger has real limits‘. In the thorough and engaging style that typifies the author’s prose, he examines many ‘crises and controversies‘ which have broken out when strangers misunderstand each other, and in the process he outlines strategies which he believes will help to forestall the transformation of casual encounters into outright conflicts (page 50).
At the heart of the book’s discourse is the widely held impression that what people are feeling is accurately expressed in their facial expressions. Dismissing this misconception, which he referred to as ‘the Friends fallacy‘ after the popular television series, the author affirmed that emotions are often opaque, and do not function as a ‘billboard for the heart‘. Whilst the author admits that people may accurately interpret the emotions of their close friends, whose ‘idiosyncratic emotional expressions’ are familiar to them, this is not the case with strangers in whom the stereotypical notions of emotions do not apply, and may be dangerously misleading (pages 154-163). Illustrating the errors that arise when attempting to read the emotions of strangers, the author pointed out how often people mistakenly infer honesty from confidence, dishonesty from nervousness, and lying from gaze-aversion (page 175). In explaining why it is so hard for strangers to understand each other’s facial expressions, the author cited several cross-cultural studies which demonstrate that globally, people attribute different emotions to the same facial expression – from happiness and surprise, to sadness and anger.
To demonstrate the damaging consequences of misinterpreting strangers, the author recounted several stories which illustrate the difficulty in telling ‘when the stranger in front us is lying to our face‘. Perhaps the most instructive anecdote, which the author referred to as ‘one of the great follies of the second World War‘, was the failure of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to see through Adolf Hitler‘s lies about not having territorial ambitions. Explaining how Chamberlain could look ‘long and hard‘ at Hitler and conclude that he was ‘a man who could be relied upon when he has given his word’, the author pointed out that ‘Chamberlain was acting on the same assumption that we all follow in our efforts to make sense of strangers’, and this was to think that ‘the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable’. On the contrary, the author argued that it was meeting Hitler that obscured the truth from Chamberlain, pointing out that people like Winston Churchill, who knew Hitler the least personally, correctly interpreted his intentions (pages 27-35). A similarly enlightening story was of the Cuban CIA infiltrator Ana Belen Montes – ‘one of the most damaging spies in U.S. history’ – who managed to hoodwink her closest colleagues even though she was not ‘a particularly brilliant spy’. Other stories which the author used to show the devastating results of misreading strangers are those of football coach Jerry Sandusky, women’s gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, and rogue investor Bernie Madoff – ‘history’s greatest con man‘ (pages 65-86, 130, 140 and 92).
An important factor underlying the human tendency to misunderstand strangers is the concept of defaulting to truth, a theory espoused by psychologist Tim Levine. Propounding that the foundation of all social interactions is the assumption of truth, the theory argues that taking the honesty of people we are dealing with for granted is universal, and when confronted with deceit, the tendency is to dismiss our ‘doubts and misgivings‘ until the doubts become too overwhelming and ‘we can no longer explain them away’. The author however highlighted different settings where the default to truth can have disastrous repercussions, such as the boundaries between rape and consensual sex. It is interesting that the author also pointed out how default to truth may be undermined by biases and prejudices, and he illustrated this with how judges imprison innocent defendants ‘simply because they don’t look right‘, and how ‘we have built a world that systematically discriminates against a class of people who, through no fault of their own, violate our ridiculous ideas about transparency‘. The author also noted that the default to truth does not operate in people with suspicious personalities; illustrating this with the example of Harry Markopolos who alone was able to detect Bernie Madoff‘s fraud, he remarked that this strategy of turning doubts into disbelief comes at a cost of staying outside social hierarchies (pages 185-186, 12, 154-163, 69-82 and 92-99).
The story which the author used throughout the book as a linchpin to demonstrate the heartbreaking aftermath of misunderstanding strangers is the banal encounter of the black woman Sandra Bland, with the white policeman Brian Encinia; this confrontation tragically ended in Bland’s death whilst in police custody just three days later. Examining ‘what really happened by the side of the highway that day in rural Texas’, the author charted the minutiae of the interchange as it escalated from a simple traffic infraction of failing to signal a lane change. Extracting remote and immediate causes of this epochal incident, the author particularly highlighted the role of police training which encourages officers to ‘pursue their doubts’, ‘stop as many people as possible for as many reasons as possible’, and to ‘use demeanor as a guide to judge innocence and guilt‘. The author asserted that Encinia misconstrued Bland’s ‘volatility and emotionality‘ as evidence of sinister motives, and he used this encounter to symbolise ‘what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers‘. The author argued the same point when he cited the momentous meeting of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez with the Aztec ruler Montezuma II; he said they ‘wanted to have a conversation even though they knew nothing about the other’, and the end result was a massacre in which ‘as many as twenty million Aztecs perished’ (pages 2-11 and 321-342).
A helpful feature of the book relates to the practical recommendations the author made to mitigate the perils inherent in the interaction of strangers. Suggesting for example that ‘the right way to talk to a stranger is with caution and humility‘, he emphasised the need to try and understand the behaviour of the stranger, and, rather than jumping to conclusions, he advocated looking at ‘the stranger’s world’ and taking into account the context in which the interaction is happening. He further advised people to ‘accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers’, and to assume the best of them, saying that this is ‘the trait that has created modern society‘. Whilst maintaining that ‘our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed’, the author nevertheless argued that this is a ‘socially necessary‘ drawback because ‘the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error’; he stressed this when he pointed out that the alternative, ‘to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception‘, would create worse outcomes for society. Describing this as ‘the paradox of talking to strangers‘, the author maintains that trust is a requirement of all ‘meaningful social encounters’, and that it is better to let ‘spies go undetected, criminals roam free, and lives…damaged’ than to adopt a ‘default to lying‘ when we meet strangers (pages 261, 285, 296, 342-343,166, 101 and 104).
This book explores prejudice in a refreshingly novel perspective, seeking to understand its more human, and less sinister, underpinnings. The ideas the author advocated are all based on a thorough research of the subject and they are all illuminating. The stories he narrated also had symbolic value in representing how encounters between strangers can go horribly wrong, and the measures to take to avoid this. Some of the stories were unduly prolonged, as was the case of the Cuban spy ring within the CIA, and some discussions, such as on alcohol and sex, were perhaps only tangentially relevant to the subject. The author’s characteristic engaging story-telling, and his deep insights into the human condition, shine through on every page, and by far overshadow the minor criticisms of the content.
The subject of this book has contemporary relevance for society in general, but even more for healthcare where uncountable encounters occur between strangers of diverse backgrounds. The topics are also applicable to healthcare where many outcomes depend on meetings which all have the potential for misunderstanding and disastrous clinical outcomes. The need to balance default to truth with appropriate doubt is a medical conundrum and this book has shed a lot of light on how to approach the issue. The contents of the book are eminently relevant to healthcare and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Allen Lane, London, 2019
Number of chapters: 12
Number of pages: 386
Star rating: 4