Malcolm Gladwell's Book Reveals The Mistakes We Make When 'Talking To Strangers'

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In "Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know," journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell details stories of miscommunication that ended in tragedy. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
In "Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know," journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell details stories of miscommunication that ended in tragedy. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Editor's note: We rebroadcast this segment on Oct. 11, 2021. Listen here.

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) likes to take a fresh look at things we assume we know about.

His books “The Blink” and “The Tipping Point” explored how little things can have a big effect on how we make decisions. In his new book, “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know,” Gladwell dissects the assumptions we make when we talk to strangers.

For example, people often think if someone is shifting, that suggests they’re lying. Well, research shows this isn’t true, Gladwell says.

Or if someone doesn’t show remorse for a crime, they are probably lying. But Gladwell reminds us that Amanda Knox was cleared of murder in Italy, a charge that he says was leveled against her because she didn’t act the way strangers thought she should.

We often view strangers as simple to understand, Gladwell says, but we ourselves are complicated and nuanced.

“When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity,” he says. “And suddenly, when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”

This is what happens when we believe deceitful people are telling us the truth, Gladwell says.

We shouldn’t judge ourselves for trying to see the good in people because society wouldn’t function if we were constantly doubting each other.

“The book is built in part on the ideas of a really brilliant psychologist named Tim Levine and he says that occasional deception is the price of civil society,” Gladwell says. “That is we shouldn't be so quick to condemn ourselves or others when we're victims of deception. We should instead understand that that's just the unavoidable side effect of something really important about human nature.”

Interview Highlights

On his profile of Ana Montes, who was a double agent for Cuba that no one suspected

“When you realize that even an agency like, for example the CIA, which is presumably one of the most sophisticated group of people around and who have devoted enormous amounts of attention and energy and resources to the detection and uncovering of spies, when you realize that they are so easily duped, then you understand kind of what we're up against as human beings. There are many things, many conclusions one can draw from that. One is it raises the question of why we bother spying. If it's impossible to detect spies, shouldn't we just get out of the business of spying ⁠— and that's actually a very, very serious point. But the larger point is that we have to, I think, come to grips as human beings, and this is one of the arguments in the book, with our fundamental weaknesses when it comes to making sense of strangers. We cannot swagger into our confrontations with strangers with the confidence that we can make sense of them in the moment. There just is no evidence that we are good at that task.”

On why it is so difficult to read people’s emotions
“There is a profound difference between fictional representations of emotion and real-life representations of emotion. And when psychologists have studied this, they found that only very infrequently is there this perfect match between our expressions and our feelings. Now that doesn't matter when you're dealing with a friend because we become very aware of their idiosyncrasies. When it comes to strangers, we don't have that kind of inside knowledge and that opens the door to all manner of misinterpretation. That's a big theme in the book, this idea of how much transparency is a problem in the way we behave.”

On how Sandra Bland’s death illustrates major themes in his book
“The Sandra Bland case is really about the same thing I've been talking about in the other cases, which is an example of our failure to communicate effectively with strangers, that the cop epically misunderstands Sandra Bland and that has catastrophic consequences. When we talk about the Sandra Bland case, the most common explanation is that it's an example of what happened when racist ideas find their way into law enforcement. I think that's absolutely true. But what I wanted to do was to dig a little deeper and say, ‘Maybe this is an example of how some fundamental ideas that we have in our head and how to deal with strangers are ill-suited for the real world.’ So transparency ... is one of them. The cop makes assumptions about Sandra Bland, who she is and how she's feeling based on her emotional expressions and body language. That is, when it comes to dealing with strangers, an exercise fraught with danger.

“And [the police officer] misinterpreted her anger as he thought she was dangerous. So this is a classic example of mistreating strangers. I begin and end with this question of policing because I think these ideas that I explore in the book apply very powerfully to modern policing, that we're asking police in American society to do something very, very difficult and very, very ambitious, which is we're asking them to aggressively intervene in the daily lives of millions of Americans and make accurate judgments about what those Americans are up to and in so doing, prevent crime. My argument in this book is that that is an impossible task.”

On the difference between racism and a misunderstanding between strangers
“What is racism? It is a strategy we use to characterize a stranger, right? It is one of a number of different ways in which one privileged group, a majority group, chooses to make sense of a minority group, of a group without power. So what I'm trying to do is to take that fundamental impulse and dig down a little bit and say, well what are the components of those powerful and consequential racist reactions. I think you can make a very strong case that this philosophy of policing that underlies things like the traffic stop of Sandra Bland, but also hundreds of thousands of other of these aggressive and ultimately, I think, socially malicious traffic stops by police officers, is a way in which policing has represented and codified racist attitudes. So why would you jump to a conclusion about a young African American woman driving lawfully down a street in the middle of the day in a middle-class community in Texas? You'd only jump to that conclusion if you had in the back of your mind some larger sense about how implicitly dangerous young black people were, right? This is why the project of the book was really to take something that is very broad and vague like racism and say, ‘How is that codified in something like law enforcement?’ ”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdSamantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on September 9, 2019.


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