Talking to Strangers - by Malcolm Gladwell
Talking to Strangers - by Malcolm Gladwell
The title may imply a focus on flirting or engaging in casual conversations with strangers, but the book’s true theme is understanding others. Misunderstandings often arise due to three factors: 1) default to truth; 2) transparency; and 3) coupling.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
Sometimes the best conversations between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger.
The people on the computer’s list were 25 percent less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial than the 400,000 people released by the judges of New York City. 25 percent! In the bake-off, machine destroyed man.
To snap out of truth-default mode requires what Levine calls a “trigger.” A trigger is not the same as a suspicion, or the first sliver of doubt. We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive.
We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.
In Russian folklore there is an archetype called yurodivy, or the “Holy Fool.” The Holy Fool is a social misfit—eccentric, off-putting, sometimes even crazy—who nonetheless has access to the truth. Nonetheless is actually the wrong word. The Holy Fool is a truth-teller because he is an outcast. Those who are not part of existing social hierarchies are free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted.
Transparency is the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor—the way they represent themselves on the outside—provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside. It is the second of the crucial tools we use to make sense of strangers. When we don’t know someone, or can’t communicate with them, or don’t have the time to understand them properly, we believe we can make sense of them through their behavior and demeanor.
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.
We are bad lie detectors in those situations when the person we’re judging is mismatched.
It was almost impossible to sit there with him and believe he was a complete fraud. I remember thinking to myself, If [Markopolos’s team] is right and he’s running a Ponzi scheme, he’s either the best actor I’ve ever seen or a total sociopath. There wasn’t even a hint of guilt or shame or remorse. He was very low-key, almost as if he found the interview amusing. His attitude was sort of “Who in their right mind could doubt me? I can’t believe people care about this.”
And why did so many of the British politicians who met with Hitler misread him so badly? Because Hitler was mismatched as well.
Instead, the people charged with making determinations of innocence and guilt seem to be as bad as or even worse than the rest of us when it comes to the hardest cases.
what they meant by myopia is that alcohol’s principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision.
Students think it is a good idea to be trained in self-defense, and not such a good idea to clamp down on drinking. But what good is knowing the techniques of self-defense if you’re blind drunk? Students think it’s a really good idea if men respect women more. But the issue is not how men behave around women when they are sober. It is how they behave around women when they are drunk, and have been transformed by alcohol into a person who makes sense of the world around them very differently.
But the harder we work at getting strangers to reveal themselves, the more elusive they become. Chamberlain would have been better off never meeting Hitler at all. He should have stayed home and read Mein Kampf. The police in the Sandusky case searched high and low for his victims for two years. What did their efforts yield? Not clarity, but confusion: stories that changed; allegations that surfaced and then disappeared; victims who were bringing their own children to meet Sandusky one minute, then accusing him of terrible crimes the next.
we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.
Poets die young. That is not just a cliché. The life expectancy of poets, as a group, trails playwrights, novelists, and nonfiction writers by a considerable margin. They have higher rates of “emotional disorders” than actors, musicians, composers, and novelists. And of every occupational category, 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—and few have so perfectly embodied that image of the doomed genius as Sylvia Plath.
In 1962, the year before Sylvia Plath took her own life, 5,588 people in England and Wales committed suicide. Of those, 2,469—44.2 percent—did so as Sylvia Plath did. Carbon-monoxide poisoning was by then the leading cause of lethal self-harm in the United Kingdom. Nothing else—not overdosing on pills or jumping off a bridge—came close.
The assumption that people would simply switch to another method is called displacement. Displacement assumes that when people think of doing something as serious as committing suicide, they are very hard to stop.
The alternative possibility is that suicide is a behavior coupled to a particular context. Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.
What does coupling theory tell us about the Golden Gate Bridge? That it would make a big difference if a barrier prevented people from jumping, or a net was installed to catch them before they fell. The people prevented from killing themselves on the bridge wouldn’t go on to jump off something else. Their decision to commit suicide is coupled to that particular bridge.
Seiden followed up on 515 people who had tried to jump from the bridge between 1937 and 1971, but had been unexpectedly restrained. Just 25 of those 515 persisted in killing themselves some other way. Overwhelmingly, the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge only at that given moment.
In one national survey, three quarters of Americans predicted that when a barrier is finally put up on the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those who wanted to take their life on the bridge would simply take their life some other way. But that’s absolutely wrong. Suicide is coupled.
The first set of mistakes we make with strangers—the default to truth and the illusion of transparency—has to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual. But on top of those errors we add another, which pushes our problem with strangers into crisis. We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.
And that means that when you confront the stranger, you have to ask yourself where and when you’re confronting the stranger—because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.
When the police cracked down, did the sex workers simply move one or two streets over? Weisburd had trained observers stationed in the area, talking to the sex workers. Was there displacement? There was not. It turns out that most would rather try something else—leave the field entirely, change their behavior—than shift their location. They weren’t just coupled to place. They were anchored to place.
The easiest way to make sense of a sex worker is to say that she is someone compelled to turn tricks—a prisoner of her economic and social circumstances. She’s someone different from the rest of us. But what is the first thing the sex workers said, when asked to explain their behavior? That moving was really stressful—which is the same thing that everyone says about moving.
Don’t look at the stranger and jump to conclusions. Look at the stranger’s world.
roughly 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year, half of whom do so by shooting themselves. Handguns are the suicide method of choice in the United States—and the problem with that, of course, is that handguns are uniquely deadly. Handguns are America’s town gas. What would happen if the U.S. did what the British did, and somehow eradicated its leading cause of suicide? It’s not hard to imagine. It would uncouple the suicidal from their chosen method. And those few who were determined to try again would be forced to choose from far-less-deadly options, such as overdosing on pills, which is fifty-five times less likely to result in death than using a gun. A very conservative estimate is that banning handguns would save 10,000 lives a year, just from thwarted suicides. That’s a lot of people.
Traffic codes in the U.S. (and in fact in most countries) give police officers literally hundreds of reasons to stop a motorist.
The first Kansas City experiment said that preventive patrol was useless, that having more police cars driving around made no difference. The second Kansas City experiment amended that position. Actually, extra patrol cars did make a difference—so long as officers took the initiative and stopped anyone they thought suspicious, got out of their cars as much as possible, and went out of their way to look for weapons. Patrol worked if the officers were busy.
That 95 percent of the time, the guns and bombs go undetected. This is not because airport screeners are lazy or incompetent. Rather, it is because the haystack search represents a direct challenge to the human tendency to default to truth.
She knows, in fact, that in a typical year the TSA screens 1.7 billion carry-on bags, and out of that number finds only a few thousand handguns. That’s a hit rate of .0001 percent—which means the odds are that if she kept doing her job for another 50 years she would never see a gun. So she sees the suspicious object inserted by the TSA’s auditors, and she lets it go.
How many extra guns and drugs did the North Carolina Highway Patrol find with those 400,000 searches? Seventeen. Is it really worth alienating and stigmatizing 399,983 Mikes and Sandras in order to find 17 bad apples?
We could start by no longer penalizing one another for defaulting to truth.
We should also accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers.
What went wrong that day on FM 1098 in Prairie View, Texas, was a collective failure. Someone wrote a training manual that foolishly encouraged Brian Encinia to suspect everyone, and he took it to heart. Somebody else higher up in the chain of command at the Texas Highway Patrol misread the evidence and thought it was a good idea to have him and his colleagues conduct Kansas City stops in a low-crime neighborhood. Everyone in his world acted on the presumption that the motorists driving up and down the streets of their corner of Texas could be identified and categorized on the basis of the tone of their voice, fidgety movements, and fast-food wrappers. And behind every one of those ideas are assumptions that too many of us share—and too few of us have ever bothered to reconsider.
Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.
Special thanks as always to my mother, who taught me to write clearly and simply. Sadly, my father died before I could finish. He would have read it carefully, mused about it, and then said something thoughtful or funny. Or possibly both. It is a lesser book without his contribution.