Why is Talking to Strangers so Difficult? Malcolm Gladwell Gives us the Answers

“We have people struggling when they meet with someone only once, and people struggling when they return to the stranger again and again. They struggle with assessing a stranger’s history. They struggle with a stranger’s character. They struggle with a stranger’s intent. It’s a mess.” – Malcolm Gladwell

In July 2015, on a quiet Texas road, a young African American woman, Sandra Bland, and a police officer, engaged in a heated confrontation after Bland was pulled over from failing to signal a lane change. Bland was arrested, jailed, and found dead in her jail cell from suicide three days later. You may recall this case, you may not. It was debated in the media for instant, but, promptly faded into the background, and was forgotten. But, there is an important question to be answered, and in his book “Talking to Stranger,” Gladwell provides us with the answer. The question:

How could failing to signal while changing lanes end up with a young woman dead? In Gladwell’s words “Talking to Strangers is an attempt to understand what really happened by the side of the highway that day in rural Texas.” 

Although the book both starts and finishes with reference to this altercation, the premise is much larger. It examines our interactions with each other, and how inherently inept we are at reading a stranger’s true intentions.

Using facts, narration, and detailed interviews, Gladwell takes us on a captivating investigation to solve the puzzle of what really happened that day in rural Texas. With each chapter, another intricate puzzle piece is added. At points, you wonder where this all is going, and then, as last puzzle piece is put  thoughtfully in place, you are confronted with the sheer genius that is Malcolm Gladwell. 

So, What was Learned?

Well, we are really lousy at talking to strangers, and we are especially awful at detecting deception. So much so that the people we pay to distinguish the truth, judges, can only detect a person is lying about 54% of the time! That’s only slightly better than chance. So:

Why are we so Crummy at Detecting Lies?

To explain this, Gladwell puts forth a theory by the Psychologist Tim Levin entitled

Truth Default Theory.” This theory states that as humans we always default to the belief that others are telling the truth. Why is this? According to Levin, since humans are generally honest, there is no advantage for us to waste our time scrutinizing others to see if they are telling the truth or lying.

For example, think about a simple interaction with a cashier at Starbucks. The stranger tells you that your coffee is $2.50, we accept this as fact because our default is to believe everyone is telling the truth.  If we were defaulted to scrutinize everything, you would have to look at all the details of the situation and decide if the cashier is indeed telling you the truth or lying. Think if all your interactions played out this way, we really wouldn’t have time for much else. Therefore, it’s much easier for us to believe that everyone is telling the truth the majority of the time. To support this argument Gladwell describe a number of fascinating famous cases where the wool was pulled over everyone’s eyes, including the deception of Hitler, Bernie Madoff, and Cuban spy Ana Montes.

We also default to the notion that what we feel on the inside is directly matched to what we are expressing on the outside, this is known as Transparency.

However, people are complicated, and our facial cues and body language do not always match out emotions.  If your feelings on the inside are not congruent with your exterior demeanour, you are referred to as “mismatched.”  And when people are mismatched, we are very poor lie detectors. Gladwell then goes on to a famous “mismatched” example of Amanda Knox, who was villainized simply because she didn’t “act” the way we expect someone to act after their roommate was murdered. Amanda Knox was mismatched, in that, her inside emotions did not match her outer demeanour, leading both the Italian police and public to believe she was caught in a lie. 

Gladwell’s thought prowess, and his superb ability to captivate his audience using his unique style involving narration, fact giving, and interviews, is simply genius. Be warned, Gladwell does touch on a number of topics that some readers my find disturbing including cases that involve pedofila and sexual assault.

This book will help you interpret the complexities of human interaction.

It might even help some to forgive themselves after falling victim to another’s deception. Cut yourself a break, if judges can’t tell others are lying, there’s no hope for the rest of us!

I give this read, five out of five stars!

Go out and grab it or borrow it from a friend! I assure you will not be disappointed! Hopefully Mr. Gladwell doesn’t make us wait another six year for his next masterpiece. 

” Leaders are readers, and readers are leaders.”

– Howard G. Hendricks

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