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