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Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell's Talking to Strangers

Malcolm Gladwell Talking to Strangers (Hachette: Little, Brown, and Co, 2019)

When we interact with strangers, we tend to apply preset scripts to our interactions. Each of us seems to have a large personal collection of scripts ready to play whenever we encounter an unfamiliar person or group of people. 

Upon meeting someone such as a small child, we speak and act a certain way and have a pre-packaged set of beliefs about that little person. Likewise, when we meet a senior citizen, a person of a different race, a person who appears to be similar to ourselves, or a very different person, we are prepared for that interaction with our preconceptions of who they are, what they will do, and how we should behave with them. Such preconceptions are often maligned but they can be helpful. Our preconceptions are shortcuts that smooth social interactions that might otherwise be unpredictable. We consider the person who is unable to do this as lacking in social skills. Someone who is perpetually surprised by people is at a disadvantage.

Some of our major political figures have the gift of interacting with strangers. We could quibble over the details, but the young Bill Clinton comes to mind. Justin Trudeau. Queen Elizabeth II. We are no longer supposed to mention Sir John A. Macdonald but he was said to have this gift too. The top-tier communicator knows what to say, to who, and when.

Most of us are not smooth-talking social wizards. We know that interactions with strangers go badly wrong. We encounter people who do not fit our preconceptions. We apply the wrong scripts to the wrong people.

We filter encounters with strangers through a jumble of experiences, stories, and personal characteristics that make up our mindset. Likewise, Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers, uses a collection of stories and thoughts to write about encounters with strangers. 

Although the various reflections are interesting and at points riveting, I was not convinced that the book as a whole added up to a compelling argument or a clear point of view on Talking to Strangers.

Gladwell begins the book with the story of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman from Chicago. Ms. Bland is a promising young new hire at Prairie View A&M University near Houston, Texas. Shortly after she arrives, she is pulled over in her car by a thirty-year-old police officer, Brian Encinia for a minor infraction. The encounter begins with apparent civility but goes downhill as Officer Encinia makes a series of escalating demands and Ms. Bland does not readily comply. The incident becomes a confrontation that ends with Ms. Bland in jail. Three days later, Ms. Bland commits suicide in her cell.

This news piece could mean a lot of different things in the aftermath of the Floyd George societal crisis this summer. In 2019, Gladwell writes about this story as an encounter between strangers.

Gladwell describes the terrible encounter between Cortes and the Aztec ruler Montezuma. It appears that each one thought the other intended to surrender to the other. In that encounter, twenty million Aztecs perished due to warfare or disease. 

He tells the story of Florentino Aspillaga, a high-ranking official in the Cuban intelligence service and a defector to the United States. Aspillaga reveals the extent to which the CIA is compromised by Cuban spies. Gladwell tells the story to ask ‘Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face? In chapter two, he tells the fascinating story of Neville Chamberlain’s reliance on the words of Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain believes Hitler but does not understand him at all.

Probably the most interesting story in the book is a comparison of the results produced by New York city judges and computers. With less information about defendants, the computers get better results. The additional information helps to mislead the judges into giving wrong answers. Like most people, I think, I would assume that more information is always better.

Gladwell begins a discussion of how we are inclined to default to the truth with the story of a Cuban spy who rises high in the American intelligence service. Despite evidence and opportunities to expose Ana Montes as a Cuban spy, it does not happen. The story of Bernie Madoff is remarkable for the length of time and amounts of money that are made in his scams.

Gladwell has a point but sometimes we default to truth and sometimes we default to untruth.  It is helpful to reflect on times when we do one or the other. In the sad story of the victims of Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University, they are not believed for many years.

Chapter six is fascinating because it shows how professional actors, in the television show Friends, telegraph truthfulness and falsehood through their portrayals of their characters. Gladwell refers to the idea of transparency. The way people represent themselves on the outside provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside. These representations vary according to culture. 

Gladwell tackles several difficult sexual assault cases in terms of myopia, especially myopia that is generated by intoxication. This state disinhibits a person from understanding and behaving appropriately toward another person. 

Rather than coming to a definitive conclusion, I enjoyed the opportunity to have a long rambling conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about the matter of Talking to Strangers. I look forward to my next ‘conversation’ with this fascinating writer.