Posted in Books, Current Events, Politics, Reviews

Book Review: Talking To Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

When I was in my twenties, I went out a lot. Being single in a city full of other single people, and being financially independent for the first time in my life with no parents telling me to be home by eleven, I grabbed every opportunity to have new experiences, and I was obsessed with meeting people and making as many new friends as I could. I subscribed to the belief that the stranger sitting next to you on the bus or the person wanting to share your table in a coffee shop was a friend just waiting to be discovered (not that this ever happened to me, but you know, the thought is nice).

I pride myself on being a good judge of character, of having enough emotional intelligence, empathy and sensitivity to read a person or read a room. In all my job interviews I would list “excellent interpersonal skills” first when asked about my strengths. If pressed, I would describe myself as generally likeable and popular. I’m good with people and people are good with me.

And yet, like so many of us, I invariably screw up in my interactions with others. I read someone wrong, I fail to see when someone is lying to me, I misinterpret other people’s actions and act on that misinterpretation, often to the detriment of that particular relationship; I give out personal information that have then been used against me, I have judged or lashed out at someone who I then found was more or less innocent of any wrongdoing. Where were my excellent interpersonal skills in those instances?

If you’ve ever asked yourself the same question, then Talking to Strangers is the book for you. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a book that EVERYONE should read.

Malcolm Gladwell argues that as a society we fail utterly and completely when we are required to talk to strangers, and that this can sometimes lead to tragic circumstances, such as the death of YouTuber Sandy Bland, who was stopped at a motor highway in Texas by a police officer for the flimsiest of reasons.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, I found it interesting that a prominent author seemed to suggest that BOTH Sandy Bland and Officer Brian Encinia were victims of this very human failure. I thought for sure that he would denounce Officer Encinia in the same way I did after having read that brief transcript of the “arrest”. Five sentences into it and I came to the conclusion that he was a complete dick, a moron who had no right to be in the position of authority he was in. I also came to the conclusion that you could not pay me enough to live in America, where these kind of “arrests” are more or less commonplace.

But Malcolm Gladwell just spent an entire book providing facts, compelling arguments and studies to support his statement that the root of the Sandy Bland problem lies not in bad policing and the screwed up American justice system, but in the realm of how we understand each other as human beings. Or more accurately, how we MISunderstand each other.

First, he discussed how human beings operate on a ‘default to truth‘ setting. This may seem laughable to those of us who believe that we are living in an increasingly cynical world where, more often than not, doubt and mistrust are the order of the day. But apparently, when confronted with an obvious lie or doubts about someone we know, it would take a whole lot of evidence to push us beyond the threshold of belief. We will always try to explain away or rationalise anything unexpected. Basically it takes a million red flags for us to believe that someone respected would be, say, a child molester. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

And yet Malcolm Gladwell cites incidences of pedophile activity that went unchecked for years before the perpetrators were finally arrested; in some cases, a full decade after the first complaint. Larry Nassar, who was the doctor for USA Gymnastics, molested hundreds of girls before any kind of conviction was made, and even as the case went to court, there were people who defended him up until the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore.

There is apparently no way for us to separate the people who are telling the truth from those who are telling lies; not even the most hardened judge or law enforcement official has it down to an exact science.

We are simply built to assume that people tell the truth until we find incontrovertible proof that they’re not. Many anthropologists have suggested that this default to truth setting is fundamental for society to continue functioning as we know it. We cannot live our lives perpetually suspicious that people are lying to us, because if that were the way everyone operated, everything would stop: relationships, governments, economies – nothing would get done. So we take the occasional betrayal on the chin, because to change our internal settings so that it defaults to lies…well this was what happened with Brian Encinia. His training went too much the other way; it all but conditioned him to believe the worst of others, so that a woman who was merely upset suddenly becomes a potential threat.

Which leads to another interesting thing that was brought up in this book: Transparency, the idea (originated by Charles Darwin, I think) that “the face has developed into some kind of billboard for the heart” borne out of the need to communicate “quickly and accurately” with each other. A smiling face means someone is happy, a lowered brow is a portent of doom, a blush signals embarrassment, and a fidgety attitude is almost akin to an admission of guilt.

Macolm Gladwell refutes Darwin, and in fact he called this chapter ‘The Friends Fallacy”, because he believes this erroneous notion stems from our copious ingestion of sitcoms such as Friends, where everything an actor is feeling is evident in their facial expressions, physical gestures, and body language. He presents a lot of studies that give evidence to the contrary, including studies conducted among remote tribes that live somewhere that’s relatively untouched by modern development. For these people, uplifted corners of the lips doesn’t necessarily equate to an expression of happiness.

Furthermore, if we follow the whole “everyone lies” train of thought, we know that everyone is capable of schooling their expression into something that actually hides their true feelings. I’ve done it myself. I’ve come into work feeling like shit, and yet I put on red lipstick and a smile on my face and no one can tell the difference. And it’s not just facial expression either, its all the other nuances you glean information from when you have a face to face interaction.

Inflection, for one. A polite tone is interpreted as someone liking you or agreeing with what you’re saying. But the British, for example, are masters at the art of damning someone with politeness. They do it so well that it took me years to see how one of my favourite surgeons can cut someone to the bone and still sound like he was asking someone if they wanted a cup of tea, and when I did finally see it in action, it made me wonder how many times I may have been patronised and insulted…but it all just went over my head.

Even more disturbing, there are cases that suggest we get it particularly wrong if the person is a mismatch, meaning, their outward demeanour reflects the opposite of what they’re actually feeling. The nervous fidgety person may just that way by nature, but because we are built to believe that nervous and fidgety equals liar, he or she get wrongfully accused. Or worse, in the case of Amanda Knox, whose kooky, slightly loony character was turned into this femme fatal persona by the international press (who really ought to be ashamed of themselves) and the Italian authorities, you get jailed for four years and scarred for life.

Terrifying. I watched the Amanda Knox documentary after reading this book, and it really struck me when she said that her story could so easily be my story. If they get things like that wrong all the time…I would really hate to be on the receiving end of a police investigation where everything I say, everything I do, every emotion that shows on my face, would be dissected and potentially used against me. I might never trust the system again, actually. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the book, but its what I’m taking away from it. We can’t trust our own judgment of strangers, the way society has been built and the way we were taught from birth simply doesn’t support it.

So what do we do? Well, there’s only thing we can do, really, and this is what I love about the book. It isn’t so much a book that will “help” you talk to strangers but rather it will raise an awareness that we can’t: we will never get it right all the time, but we will get it right sometimes, and we have to accept that “sometimes” is probably the best we can hope for.

And somehow, we need find a way to forgive ourselves if our errors in judgment lead to devastating consequences, like Sandy Bland and Amanda Knox and all of Larry Nassar’s victims.

This is what it means to be human.

Rating: 5 stars

Posted in Covid-19, Current Events, Health and Well-Being, Nursing

It’s Been a Long Year…and It’s Only the Start of May

Sometimes it feels like this lockdown will never end.

Its been roughly six weeks since the UK imposed measures that essentially robbed life of any semblance of normalcy. Since then, we’ve all been trying our damnedest to keep our spirits up even as we become increasingly isolated from our fellow man.

Every day there seems to be new challenges cropping up on social media (like doing 20 press-ups on your instagram story and then challenging five other people to do the same) or an at-home concert organised by one pop star or the other, and what both those things have in common is that it speaks to our inherent need to stay connected even as social distancing becomes the new normal.

I might just be speaking for myself here, but I think this unprecedented crisis has heightened our sense of empathy and compassion for others. All of a sudden the number of people showing support for the NHS and recognising the work that carers do has increased tenfold. Young people now go out of their way to buy groceries for elderly neighbours. Colleagues who don’t normally get along have learned to put their differences aside so they can work together and do what’s best for the department they work for.

Personally, what this pandemic is teaching me, above all else, is that in times of pain and suffering no one is a stranger.

This week another nurse lost the battle to Covid-19, three weeks after his admission to one of the best hospitals in the country. He was my age.

Like me, he was an overseas nurse who left the Philippines to pursue a career in a foreign country, in the hopes that it will lead to a better life for himself and his family.

Like most of my friends, he dreamed of opportunities and adventures the likes of which we never would have experienced if we stayed in the Philippines.

Like tens of thousands of Filipinos before him, he bore the loneliness, the frequent homesickness, and the separation from family because he believed his future laid here, in his adopted country.

When I heard about the story of his death, I cried like a baby.

Despite having plenty of common friends, in every sense of the word this person was a virtual stranger to me. And yet his death affected me to a degree that goes beyond what you would normally feel for someone you didn’t know from Adam.

Maybe his story hit a little too close to home. I don’t want to dwell too much on how his story could so easily be our story, because that kind of thinking is just too morbid to contemplate. But all the same, on the day of his death I said a little prayer for every overseas Filipino nurse I know, and even for those that I don’t.

I’m not really sure how to end this post that has turned out to be more morose than I intended it to be when I first started writing.

I guess I just wanted to say that the longer this goes on, the deeper we may have to dig within ourselves to stay upbeat and positive.

But we can’t let this virus defeat us. I have every hope that this too shall pass, that there is a life waiting on the other side of this pandemic, and that we will all be better, more understanding, and hopefully kinder people for having lived through it.

We owe it to the people who have lost their lives to this virus, and especially to the people who have given their lives in caring for people with this virus, to ensure that we never ever take that life for granted.

Posted in Current Events, Health and Well-Being

A Brief Pause to Examine the State of the World

I’ve often been accused of being ignorant about what’s going on with the rest of the world. I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t keep up with the news and current events as much as someone my age probably should. In my defense, its not because I don’t care, its because it genuinely depresses me to read about the endless wars and political squabbles. It seems like every time you turn a page or switch on the telly, a city is being bombed, a horrendous leader is being elected, something like Brexit is becoming a reality…there’s nothing in the news that I want to read and internalise.

2020 has changed all that though.

2020 has forced me to really sit up and take notice of what’s going on around me. It’s only March and it feels like this year has lasted a decade. First there were fires in Australia, and then the increasing conflict between the US and Iran that made me seriously consider learning German so that if a war breaks out I can move to Switzerland and be able to work there. And now we have this coronavirus that’s causing a mass outbreak of paranoia, fear and even hysteria. Its hard to believe we’re still in the first quarter of the year because so much has already happened.

As a health care professional I’m on the fence about how much precaution to take with this COVID-19 thing. I agree that all non-essential travels to affected countries should be avoided, and I’m quite glad that people are now more aware of the importance of handwashing: its the first line of defense against infection, people. Its one of the first things we learn in nursing school.

On the other hand, some of the things that people get up to are just borderline silly. Pharmacies and drugstores are running short on masks and hand sanitiser, fair enough, but people stocking up on so much toilet paper that some supermarkets now have a shortage? Get a grip. Even more alarming, some people are actually stealing masks and sanitisers from NHS hospitals. How bloody counterproductive. If this thing becomes the epidemic/pandemic that the WHO is projecting it to be, the NHS will be the go-to place for very sick patients, might be best to leave their resources alone.

On a more personal note, its disheartening to see the amount of racism that’s come out because of the coronavirus outbreak. I sneezed in Chinatown a couple of weeks ago and was given a dirty look. Last night I was actually stopped because I coughed in public. I was attempting to clear my airway because I choked on my own spit, it was NOT a productive cough. But because I have very Asian features this person thought she had the right to physically stop me on the street to tell me to cover my mouth. I have now developed an irrational fear of clearing my throat or coughing in public. I am not entirely sure I’d be safe if I exhibit anything that even remotely resembles respiratory symptoms.

I understand the fear, I really do. I wouldn’t wish to underplay how serious this is. The combination of how infectious the virus is and how quickly its transmitted from person to person is a genuine cause for concern. But I don’t think an epidemic excuses racism, or theft. Life is already being disrupted by this. Travel is affected. Gatherings have been cancelled. I can’t even shake hands during the peace offering when I attend mass. I don’t think we should compound this by forgetting basic human decency.

The key thing to remember with this is awareness and containment. There are a lot of things about this that we can’t control, but we are all still the master of our own actions. If you’ve been in contact with anyone suspected of having this virus or have recently travelled to a high-risk area, take the 14-day quarantine. Its annoying, but think of the greater good. I promise to give you a list of Netflix shows that will make the confinement a bit more bearable. If you’ve travelled anywhere recently and are showing symptoms, I think its only sensible to self-quarantine also.

Apart from that, handwashing, handwashing, and handwashing is really at the heart of preventing transmission. And also keeping a healthy distance away from your fellowman. This is a good excuse for me to carry on with my self-imposed dating hiatus. At this rate anyone who sees me will probably run screaming if I so much as sniffle anyway. There’s no point attempting to go on a date (this is my excuse and I’m sticking to it). Personally I would avoid the tube at rush hour or walk if I can. This might be a good time to pick up the habit of running to and from work.

There is no need to panic, and we’re not helping ourselves by inciting fear in others or downplaying how serious this is (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump). Conspiracy theories, as fun as they are to pick apart, don’t help anyone. Let us all try to live our lives as normally as we can and try not to be active agents of infection. I don’t know about you, but I’m still optimistic that, just like any other viral disease, this will run its course very soon and we can get on with the business of living.

Hope springs eternal.