Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

I always love Gladwell’s books. This one is about the (sometimes very serious) mistakes we make when communicating with strangers. In typical Gladwell style the book blends research with anecdote with analysis of relevant high profile cases — Ana Montes, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner, Amanda Knox, and some police departments. Even if you don’t recognize all of the names, you will recognize the cases.

There are three basic components to the problem. Humans are programmed to “default to the truth.” We like to believe people are telling the truth and unless the doubt becomes insurmountable, we have a tendency to rationalize away any misgivings or even the suspicions of others. Ana Montes and Bernie Madoff fall into this category. Transparency is next problem — we expect people’s internal feelings and thoughts to be reflected transparently on their faces … in the way we expect. We have been trained to expect a certain set of behaviors and expressions in someone who is sad, for example. When someone we don’t know behaves according to our expectations, we are confident we understand their inner state; when they don’t, we can easily misinterpret their behavior. Jerry Sandusky and Amanda Knox are cases that illustrate this phenomenon. Lastly, there is the concept of coupling to context. We don’t (can’t) understand the influence of context in which a stranger’s behavior is taking place. Sylvia Plath and Brock Turner (and alcohol) illustrate this point.

What to me is the most important part of the book, however, is that Gladwell points out that if we optimize for suspicion so that people like Ana Montes and Bernie Madoff don’t get away with their crimes for so long, we can tear the fabric of society apart. Most people don’t lie, commit crimes, or run around with malevolent intent, but if we treat everyone as suspicious — particularly those in a specific neighborhood, or with foreign license plates, or with a different colored skin — we run some terrible risks (which he illustrates in some very compelling ways). Now with Covid, it feels like we are viewing every other human being with suspicion.

As with all of Gladwell’s books — full of insight, completely accessible and utterly fascinating.

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