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.
Larry Nassar, the doctor at USA gymnastics who abused their athletes
"Many of Nassar's chief defenders were the parents of his patients. They weren't engaged in some kind of conspiracy of silence to protect larger institutional or financial interests. These were their children." (128)
Things appear black and white looking back on things, but there is a huge gray area over decades of suspicion
"He is supposed to have engaged in repeated acts of sexual violence. And his alleged victims didn't misinterpret what he was doing to them. They acted as if nothing had ever happened." (137)
The TV show Friends is strikingly "transparent"—we can understand what is going on without dialogue due to how expressive the body language of the actors is (147)
"We believe someone's demeanor is a window into their soul" (154)—this works in Friends but evidently does not work in most court cases where the judgement of judges does worse than a model on the raw data (154)
Also, our interpretation of emotions is largely cultural—other groups of people without the same upbringings interpret the same body language as expressive of different emotions (160)
In a study which deliberately surprised/shocked participants by changing their environment and having a friend appear out of nowhere, participants "inferred their likely facial expressions to the surprising event from...folk-psychological beliefs about emotion-face associations." (162)
"We need the criminal-justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human. but the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error." (166)
False conviction of Amanda Knox
"Her prosecutor was wildly irresponsible, obsessed with fantasies about elaborate sex crimes. Yet it took a ruling by the Italian Supreme Court, eight years after the crime, for Knox to be finally declared innocent." (170)
"We tend to judge people's honesty based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people who give windy, convoluted explanations aren't." (175)
But people act differently and react to stressful/new scenarios in radically different ways
Madoff is a mismatch: a liar who acts honest, as was Hitler
"In a situation that typically calls for a sympathetic response, Knox was loud and angry" (181)
"the crime of not behaving the way we think people are supposed to behave after their roommate is murdered" (181-182)
Judges often do worse than the average person in cases which are particularly mismatched
Brock Turner sexual assault case at Stanford
"How did an apparently harmless encounter on a dance floor end in a crime?" (201)
Goes to the Camba culture: "Here we have a community of people, in a poor and underdeveloped part of the world, who hold drinking parties with 180-proof alcohol every weekend" (205) and they do not have the issues which plague is in the US
Critique in the NYT: "Blacking out has become so normal that even if you don't personally do it, you understand why others do. It's a mutually recognized method of stress relief. To treat it was anything else would be judgmental." (221)
"Many of those who study alcohol no longer consider it an agent of disinhibition. They think of it as an agent of myopia." (207); "alcohol's principle effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision...Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background less significant."
"Drinking puts you at the mercy of your environment. It crowds out everything except the most immediate experiences." (208)
The Camba "used the myopia of alcohol to temporarily create a different world for themselves...only within a structure...a world of soft music and quiet conversation: order, friendships, predictability, and ritual." (210)
"how can you determine consent when, at the moment of negotiation, both parties are so far from their true selves?" (215)
Some of the science
Sedates effectively all regions of your brain (motor control, long term memory store, etc.)
"Women have much less water in their bodies than men, with the result that alcohol enters their bloodstream much more quickly." (222)
"Having a meal in your stomach when you drink reduces your peak BAC by about a third" (223)
Lays out how sexual assault can play out from a unique POV: "Normally you would stiffen again, because you would recognize the stranger's pattern. But you don't this second time, because you don't remember the first time. And the fact that you don't stiffen in quite the same way makes the stranger think, under the assumption of transparency, that you are welcoming his advances." (224)
Myopia makes it hard to calculate in respect for others and longer-term consequences (226)
From the victim: "My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition." (229)
"Brock Turner was asked to do something of crucial importance that night—to make sense of a stranger's desired and motivations." (231)
Interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM)
"sits around and thinks about economies of scale when it comes to killing people" (237)
US employed enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs)—also known as torture
Sleep deprivation, walling, waterboarding (244)
"KSM knew he wasn't seeing daylight again, ever. He had no incentive to cooperate." (248)
"what if the process of securing compliance proved so stressful to the interviewee that it affected what he or she could actually remember?...watching adults turn into children" (254)
"like trying to get a better signal out of a radio that you are smashing with a sledgehammer" (256)
Can cause "long-term structural remodeling of the brain systems" (259)
Suicide of poet Sylvia Plath
"poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population. Something about writing poetry appears either to attract the wounded or to open new wounds" (267)
"Carbon monoxide poisoning was by then the leading cause of lethal self-hard in the UK" (271); discovery of natural gas in North Sea → refit almost all infra in the UK to run on this, which has just trace amounts of CO
Deaths by suicide plummeted in the UK after the change
Displacement: theory that "when people think of doing something as serious as committing suicide, they are very hard to stop" (273)
Coupling: theory that suicide "isn't simply the act of depressed people. It's the act of depressed people at a particular moment of extreme vulnerability and in combination with a particular, readily available lethal means." (274)
"Handguns are the suicide method of choice in the US". If we removed the guns, "those few who were determined to try again would be forced to choose from far-less-deadly options, such as overdosing on pills" (276)
"it is really hard for us to accept the idea that a behavior can be so closely coupled to a place." (279)
Eventually, we saw that putting netting on the Golden Gate Bridge significantly cut back on suicides
Often our narrative "distorts who she is: it says her identity was tied up entirely in her self-destructiveness. Coupling forces us to see the stranger in her full ambiguity and complexity." (290)
On policing, stop and frisk
"It was the bad neighborhood of town, [but] most of the streets didn't have any crime" (282); "3.3 percent of the street segments in the city accounted for more than 50 percent of the police calls" (284)
Found far less displacement in sex workers than expected (they do other things than sex work rather than going to other locations) (291)
"these people have become like caged animals in their own homes; bars on the windows are the norm...These elderly people lock themselves up and shut themselves in. They hear the world outside, and it sometimes sounds like a battle zone." (303)
Has led to quotas, poorly aligned incentives when this is not targeted to the right places where crime is statistically coupled
"Traffic codes in the US...give police officers literally hundreds of reasons to stop a motorist." (305); "For Kansas City traffic stops to work, the police officer...had to suspect the worst of every car he approached. He had to stop defaulting to truth." (321) "if the police officer is to find that criminal needle in a haystack, he has to fight the rational calculation that most of us make that the world is a pretty honest place." (323)
This is a great paradox of our times...
"so many innocent people are caught up in the wave of suspicion that trust between police and community is obliterated" (336-337)
"make the haystack just a little smaller, and to make the inevitable trade-off between fighting crime and harassing innocent people just a little more manageable." (339)
"If you are blind tot he ideas that underlie our mistakes with strangers—and to the institutions and practices that we construct around those ideas—then all you are left with is the personal" (345)

← Back to all books