Talking to Strangers

What we should know about the people we don't know

By Malcolm Gladwell



Originally published

Sep 10, 2019




May 14, 2020


May 21, 2020

PurchaseExternal link
I got this book when Gladwell spoke at Penn with professor Adam Grant. The talk was brilliant: conversational, pensive, even a little interactive. The book didn't hold the same conviction. I found it would traverse from topic to topic and only at the end try to reach some relatively simple and not particularly useful universal-ish truth...
Opens with a story about his dad's unique behaviors, "Sometimes the best conversations between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger." (xii)
No blame or bias or anything, no expectation for repeated interactions
Next goes to the story of Sandra Bland, a young black professional woman who was arrested after a traffic stop and verbal confrontation with a police officer and ended up killing herself in custody
There was clearly a huge misalignment between her concerns and those of the police officer
"One side saw a forest, but no trees. The other side saw trees and no forest." (6)
"[the cop]'s terrified of her. And being terrified of a perfectly innocent stranger holding a cigarette is the price you pay for not defaulting to truth." (332)
These negative outcomes mean we must be "willing to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers." (13)
"Throughout the majority of human history, encounters—hostile or otherwise—were rarely between strangers." (7) "When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met the Aztec ruler Montezuma II, neither side knew anything about the other at all." (7)
Notorious conflict (which ended poorly for the natives) where the parties were "struggling to understand each other through multiple layers of translators." (12)
The CIA was severely duped by the Cubans
"listed dozens of names—particularly the entire U.S. roster of secret agents inside Cuba. They were all working for Havana, spoon-feeding the CIA information cooked up by the Cubans themselves." (22)
"the Cubans must have had advance word of every secret meeting place, and sent their technicians over to wire the rooms for sound" (23)
"if the CIA's best can be misled so completely, so many times, then what of the rest of us?" (27)
DIA, CIA, NSA all got duped
"What began as a Cuban atrocity was now transformed a story about American diplomatic incompetence." (56)
Investigators "rationalized away [their] uneasiness" because other people in the org trusted and had faith in these undercover agents (67)
Few world leaders believed Hitler's ambitious claims were substantiated until it was too late
"One of the odd things about the desperate hours of the late 1930's, as Hitler dragged the world toward war, was how few of the world's leaders really knew the German leader." (29)
"Chamberlain looked at Hitler long and hard and decided he believed him" (31)
"misread Hitler's intentions" (32)
"We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable" (33); really, this biases us based on the personality of the person we are interacting with rather than whether they are actually telling the truth or not
"No one ever thought Halifax was naive, yet he was as deluded after meeting with Hitler as Chamberlain was." (34)
"The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew the least about him personally." (36)
"the criminal justice system assumes, as Chamberlain did, that those kinds of difficult decisions are better made when the judge and the judged meet each other first." (38)
Often, decisions on the unbiased data are better (even though there are technically fewer data points without the in-person discussions) (41)
"Judges in New York (as in all jurisdictions) vary dramatically in how likely they are to release someone, or how prohibitively high they set bail." (40)
Clearly this is unfair and shows our biases in how we view our jobs
"How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?" (43)
Similar biases about how good we think we are at judging others appears in research
"The same person who said, 'These word completions don't seem to revel much about me at all' turned around and said [huge inferences] of a perfect stranger" (48)
Illusion of asymmetric insight: "The conviction that we know others better than they know us—and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa)—leads us to talk when we would do well to listen" (49)
"We're much better than chance at correctly identifying the students who are telling the truth. But we're much worse than chance at correctly identifying the students who are lying....We have a default to truth" (73)
There's a "distinction between some doubts and enough doubts" (78); "doubts trigger disbelief only when you can't explain them away" (82)
The fraud of Renaissance Technologies and Bernie Madoff
Early on, associates sensed "Madoff smelled a little funny. but he wasn't willing to believe that he was an out-and-out liar. Simons had doubts, but not enough doubts. He defaulted to truth." (91)
Harry Markopolos based his investigations on data and data alone, "gift-wrapped and delivered the largest Ponzi scheme in history to them, and somehow they couldn't be bothered to conduct a thorough and proper investigation" (93)
"When he analyzes an investment opportunity or a company, he prefers not to meet any of the principals personally." (94)
"If the five largest banks don't know your trades and are not seeing your business, then you have to be a Ponzi scheme. It's that easy." (96)
"I saw a lot of theft in [his dad's, an immigrant's, shop]. And so I became fraud-aware at a formative age, in my teens and early twenties...when you run a business, five to six percent of our revenues are going to be lost to theft." (95)
"forty cents of every health-care dollar goes to either fraud or waste" (98)
"He was armed with all the same facts but none of the faith in the system." (97)
He has no threshold for when doubts become action
Holy Fools: "willing to sacrifice loyalty in their institution—and, in many cases, the support of their peers—in the service of exposing fraud and deceit." (99)
"The statistics saw that the liar and the con man are rare. But to the Holy Fool, they are everywhere." (100)
"If everyone on Wall Street behaved like Harry Markopolos, there would be no fraud on Wall Street—but the air would be so thick with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street." (101)
More evolutionarily for why most default to truth: "Being deceived once in a while is not going to prevent us from passing on our genes or seriously threaten the survival of the species. Efficient communication, on the other hand, has huge implications for our survival." (105)
Jerry Sandusky and PSU football
"McQueary saw Sandusky in the shower in 2001. The investigation into Sandusky's behavior did not start until nearly a decade later, and Sandusky wasn't arrested until November 2011." (111)
Many knew he "horsed around" with kids, but didn't have enough doubt (118)
"Sexual-abuse cases are complicated, wrapped in layers of shame and denial and clouded memories, and few high-profile cases were as complicated as Jerry Sandusky's." (137)
We can't blame the admins for defaulting to truth, though the victims deserve our "sympathy, not our censure" (141). It's easy to say that our guardians should have caught these offenses, though in order to do that they would have to undermine the trust and collaboration which makes PSU great.

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