Talking to Strangers
How do we make sense of people we don’t know? We might think we can read the strangers we meet, but sometimes we get it wrong. Using examples from history and the news, Malcolm Gladwell shows how and why we make these mistakes.
The book begins with the Sandra Bland case. In 2015, Bland, a young African American woman, was stopped by a police officer in Texas for a traffic violation. Based on his preliminary interaction, the officer feared an aggressive confrontation. The situation quickly got out of hand. Bland was arrested and jailed and three days later, she committed suicide in her jail cell.
Before World War II, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was sure he could accurately read Adolf Hitler, so he scheduled a series of face-to-face meetings. Afterwards, Chamberlain told the world that Hitler would not invade Europe, because Hitler had given his word and had even signed a paper saying so. Fidel Castro fooled the CIA and flipped many American agents during the 1980s, much to the shock of the United States. Bernie Madoff duped investors out of $64.8 billion in the largest Ponzi scheme in history. How could these things happen?
One of the reasons (not the Sandra Bland case, that’s more a case of a tragic misreading) is that human beings are wired to default to truth: most of us want to believe. We wouldn’t be able to function as a society if we thought everyone was lying. And most of the time, the strangers we meet do tell the truth. Psychologist Tim Levine, who has conducted comprehensive studies of human behavior, explains why. “What we get in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie is efficient communication and social coordination,” says Levine. In other words, “the cost of doing business.”
We’re also conditioned to believe facial expressions. Smiles mean happy, frowns mean mad, furtive eyes mean lying, etc. That doesn’t always work. And sometimes the undetected lies are at great cost. Gladwell looks at how former Penn State football coach and convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky fooled school administrators and the public. And why Larry Nassar, team physician of the USA Gymnastics women’s national team, abused girls and women for years before he was convicted.
But what about the Amanda Knox case? Knox, an exchange student in Italy, was convicted of murdering her roommate in 2007. She spent nearly four years in an Italian prison before courts overturned her conviction. Why was she convicted? Because, despite a complete lack of evidence, she didn’t behave the way we believed someone in her situation should have behaved. She wasn’t serious enough and so the courts, and the tabloids, thought she was lying.
On college campuses, young people also struggle to understand the strangers they meet at parties, particularly when alcohol mixes into their interactions. Gladwell looks at consent as it applies to the 2015 sexual assault case against Stanford University freshman Brock Turner.
And in a fascinating look at depression and suicide, Gladwell explains the theory of coupling, the idea that certain settings and circumstances, lead to situations, including suicide, that otherwise would not occur. How does this connect to the other examples? We may misread others because we don’t understand the coupling circumstances.
This book was fascinating. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gladwell, and supplemented with the print version. The audiobook was produced to resemble a podcast, using actual interviews from the cases cited. Gladwell does a great job explaining each case, the theories and tying up the examples. I’m sure I will read more books by Gladwell and highly recommend Talking to Strangers.
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