Book Report: Talking to Strangers

Another book finished, and I’m impressed that I got this one done in less than a week, since I’m also trying to knit some every day now. I bought Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell, because I really wanted some insight into how to communicate with people from different communities, cultures, social groups, etc.

Hey look, you can buy it, too. Trying a new embed format.

It turns out that the famous Mr. Gladwell (he wrote Blink, a book I didn’t like much at the time it came out) wasn’t exactly writing about what I thought he would, but I found the direction he took pretty interesting, anyway.

The question he really seemed to be asking was more like why do we let assumptions about other people, based on appearance, blind us to their real motives or intentions? He talks about cases we are all familiar with, like Bernie Madoff, who fooled all kinds of rich people into believing his really ridiculous Ponzi schemes and the pedophilia scandal at Penn State University, where Jerry Sandusky’s purported actions were dismissed until everything blew up and all sorts of people lost their jobs.

Don’t talk to strangers, said so many mothers. Photo by @tonyturretto via Twenty20

Spoiler alert: Gladwell says all of the misinterpretations of others’ motivations boils down to two main things: one is that we all assume that people we don’t know are telling us the truth. It takes lots and lots of evidence that something’s amiss to change that assumption. So, good ole Bernie M. was such a nice guy and friends of so many smart people, of course he was telling the truth! Gladwell points out that the assumption of truth is actually a good thing almost all the time. It certainly would slow down social interactions if you questioned everything anyone said to you, right? That lets skilled liars, or even unskilled liars, as he shares with a story about a Cuban spy in the CIA, keep doing what they’re doing.

Here’s one way to not read people’s motivations from their faces, right? Photo by  @pprevost via Twenty20

The second thing that makes knowing what a stranger is really up to hard is the assumption of transparency. This means how we expect that we can read people’s motivations from their appearance. As long as people act like our cultural norms predict they should in a situation, it goes well. This refers to looking afraid when you are scared or acting solemn when someone dies (Amanda Knox in an Italian murder case didn’t act sad enough when her roommate died, but really she was just socially awkward, not a killer). People who, like Knox, don’t telegraph their internal states can get away with lying or not be believed when they are telling the truth. In the end, that is one thing that caused that poor Sandra Bland woman to end up dead in a jail cell: she acted nervous when a police officer pulled her over and didn’t grovel properly, in his mind.

The other part of Talking to Strangers that I enjoyed a lot was a discussion of the concept of “coupling,” where Gladwell makes a strong case that inexplicable things you do are tied strongly to location and opportunity. Sylvia Plath’s suicide happened because gas ovens in England still had carbon monoxide in them. If she had tried to do it a year or two later, they’d have switched to natural gas, and she would have just gotten a headache. Another poet, Anne Sexton, killed herself by locking herself in the garage and turning her car on. This was just a short time before catalytic converters showed up in American cars, so this method wouldn’t work. Um, did you know that the profession most likely to commit suicide is poets?

That’s right. Don’t do it.

The point is, though, people think that if your chosen method won’t work, you go try another method, but the research on coupling has shown that isn’t true. When nets were put on the Golden Gate Bridge, people didn’t march off to another bridge to jump off. The motivation is tied to the place.

I haven’t explained that well. The section on coupling is the main reason I encourage people to read Talking to Strangers. I kept reading sentences aloud to Anita, because I was learning so much. The section about “pockets of crime” blew me away.

Photo by @yournameonstones via Twenty20

Now that I write this all down, it’s clear that Gladwell made a big impression on me with his viewpoints and the research that backs them up. It’s fun that he weaves recent events (and Hitler) into the analysis, because you always want to know how the heck these implausible events actually go down the way they do (why did Neville Chamberlain like and believe the words of Hitler?). I have a new perspective on why people just don’t “get” each other so often. Learning is good!

Sadly, I still don’t think I’m any better about talking to strangers. I think I’m even more cautious about it than I was before. Maybe that’s a good thing. Assumptions about other people tend to bite you in the…butt.

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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