Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know
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Published: 9/10/2019
Malcolm Gladwell, host of the podcast Revisionist History and #1 bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath, and What the Dog Saw, offers a powerful examination of our interactions with strangers---and why they often go wrong. How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that…

Talking to Strangers By Malcolm Gladwell

Key Insights

In life, we make assumptions and judgments on a regular basis.

Every time we see a person we don’t know, we immediately pass judgment on them, either consciously or subconsciously.

But, as humans, are we really that good at understanding strangers?

In “Talking Strangers”, Malcolm Gladwell gives us some key insights into why humans have such a hard time deciphering another person’s character. And, why we are often tricked by charming lies because of our trusting nature.

“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”- Malcolm Gladwell

With Gladwell’s deep dig into human behavior, you will begin to understand why you should never ever judge a stranger.

Key Points

  • We Aren’t As Intuitive As We Think

Unfortunately, we are not as good at reading strangers as we think we are. And, this is true for people who work in a career where that is their main job.

In his book, Gladwell shares an example of Solomon, a bail judge in New York. Solomon’s job is to read the files of the inmates and also examine them face-to-face.

In 2017, Solomon and his team were put to a test. They were put up against artificial intelligence software to determine just how good they were at reading the inmates.

The results showed that the inmates released by Solomon and his team were 25% more likely to commit a crime than those that the technology chose to release.

“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 and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.” -Malcolm Gladwell

Humans think they can read people using visual cues and body language. But, this is rather weak evidence of a person. We believe that strangers are easy-to-read, which contradicts our ideas about the complexity of the human race.

  • Deception Cannot Be Spotted

As humans, we assume people are telling the truth until deception becomes incredibly obvious.

Gladwell shares an example of Tim Levine, a scientist, who conducted an experiment in which the test subjects watched tapes of students who had just participated in a trivia test.

In the videos, Levine is seen asking the students questions about the trivia test, such as “did you cheat?” and “If I ask your partner, will she tell me the same?”

The results were that some of the cheating students lied through their teeth, while others confessed to their cheating ways immediately.

As the test subjects watch the video, Levine asks them to decide which students are lying and which are not. The results were about 50/50 with the test subjects correctly identifying the lying students.

Without a clear trigger to think the person is lying such as defensiveness or avoiding eye contact, the test subjects and humans, in general, are more likely to just believe that these students are telling the truth.

  • Assuming the Truth is Important

Although it’s a pain that we cannot identify deception as best as we’d like to, it is important to assume the truth so that our society can function in a peaceful way.

The same scientist, Tim Levine, who conducted the trivia experiment, notes that lies are extremely rare in real life. Most people are honest by nature and do not have any reasons to lie.

For example, when you go to a local fast-food restaurant, you don’t find the need to calculate the price yourself before paying. You assume that the cashier is giving you the correct price for your meal.

  • You Can’t Read Someone’s Face

In sitcoms, such as “Friends”, which Gladwell discusses, you can easily follow the conversation and the plot just by looking at the character’s faces. Everything is acted and exaggerated, but that is not the same as real life.

People think that humans are just as transparent as these characters because that is just what we are culturally exposed to. But, that’s just not so!

Two German psychologists conducted an experiment where they tested people’s “surprise face” by altering a room drastically that they previously walked into. It’s almost like a “Trading Spaces” reveal. The results showed that only 17% of the people showed a classic “surprise face”, while the others were not as transparent even if they did feel surprised.

The 17% that did show the “surprise face” were likely portraying what they had seen in pop-culture references.

  • We Often Misjudge People

The classic case of Amanda Knox is a great example of how we often misjudge people. Knox was innocent but was made to be guilty because of her non-transparent behavior when dealing with the police. She often “acted guilty”, however, there was no hard evidence to actually convict her. The police simply used their cultural references to infer her as guilty.

“Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own.” -Malcolm Gladwell

Some humans are simply more transparent than others, and that is where it becomes hard to accurately read people you don’t know.

  • Alcohol Blurs The Lines Even More

Alcohol blurs the lines when reading people. We hear this often in court cases about sexual assault. When alcohol is involved, people have different views about the ideas of consent. Was the sexual experience mutual, or wasn’t it?

Alcohol, as we know, affects our behavior. So, a sometimes shy person may become very talkative after a few glasses of wine. So, how can you accurately read someone whom you are meeting when they are intoxicated?

Gladwell alludes to the fact that yes, men should start to learn to respect women more, but we should also be cutting down on our consumption of alcohol because it definitely affects the ability to read a stranger.

Main Take-Away

Humans cannot understand strangers as well as they think. Many humans are not as transparent as others and this causes problems in the accuracy of judging people’s character. We must make the effort to listen, observe, and get to know people before passing judgment.

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