A Different Gladwell
Talking to Strangers

A Different Gladwell

Best-selling author and cultural commentator Malcom Gladwell offers a philosophical journey into the realm of trust and perception.

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s overview of interactions among strangers illustrates astonishingly complex aspects of stranger-to-stranger dynamics. Gladwell’s warning comes through loud and clear: Take nothing for granted when talking with people you do not know.

Gladwell is, to understate wildly, a vastly respected social observer. The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Chicago Tribune and Detroit Free Press all named this the Best Book of the Year. O, The Oprah Magazine said, “Reading it will actually change not just how you see strangers, but how you look at yourself, the news – the world.” The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Gladwell’s towering success rests on the moment when the skeptic starts to think that maybe we’re wrong about everything and maybe, just maybe, this Gladwell guy is onto something.”

If you like Gladwell, then your go-to ancillary readings should include his Outliers and Blink. Quality Gladwellian approaches by other authors include David Epstein’s Range and David Maurer’s The Big Con.

Flip a Coin

Gladwell describes how seriously the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) takes deception and its detection. Yet, the author asserts in line with his main theme, the CIA fails to detect people who are spying against it. During the Cold War, for example, the author reports that virtually every CIA agent in Cuba and in the Soviet Bloc was a double agent spying for the enemy.

If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is adamant that you can’t draw reliable conclusions about people – especially strangers – by watching their expressions, observing their behaviors or trying to sense their emotions. 

Benefits of Trust

Gladwell excels at debunking common assumptions. He reports that humans haven’t evolved lie-detecting ability because dishonesty, he reports with mild surprise, doesn’t occur frequently, and when it does, it usually causes little harm. The benefits of trust, the author insists, overwhelm the risks of getting burned. Trust and truth enable communications and transactions in life and in commerce. Still, Gladwell relates ruefully, your trusting nature will sometimes get you – or other people – in trouble.

Compelling Paradox 

Gladwell reports that evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin believed that similar, easily interpreted expressions – of joy, sadness, fear, surprise, and the like – were consistent for all peoples and cultures. Gladwell reminds readers that, in fact, these things actually are not consistent at all, which explains why people can’t accurately gauge strangers’ emotions or intent across – or even within – cultures. Books and movies, the author reminds you, depict people in stereotypical expressions of various emotions, such as surprise. But in numerous experiments in which subjects encounter scenarios they later rate as highly surprising, Gladwell notes that only about 5% registered facial expressions that others identify as being indicators of surprise.

Gladwell sticks to this theme tightly in this work and every example builds his case that encounters between strangers are fraught with bias. Job interviews, bail hearings and interactions with police would have better results, the author relates, if the parties never saw each other. However, he admits, social norms and the nature of being human demand face-to-face interactions. In this, Gladwell finds a compelling paradox. 

When we confront a stranger we have to substitute an idea – a stereotype – for direct experience. And that stereotype is wrong all too often. Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell avers that extensively trained law enforcement professionals, like most people, do well at spotting real liars whose comportment fits the stereotypes of liars – evasiveness, lack of eye contact, rambling answers to simple questions, and such. He notes with amusement that professionals perform worse than laypeople when they encounter difficult cases of truth tellers who act like liars, and vice versa. 

Circumstances, Conditions and Context 

Beyond your inability to read strangers’ emotions and your powerful bias to believe what they tell you, Gladwell affirms, you must face up to the additional problem of context. Where and when you meet a stranger, he emphasizes, matters.

We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues.Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell sums up his theme by stating that you can’t engineer perfect encounters with strangers. Approach conversations carefully, mildly and cautiously.

A Different Gladwell

Here, Gladwell takes a slightly different and welcome approach. Instead of exploring the implications of quantitative metrics – such as his famous 10,000 hours – he explores the ineffable. This means he often describes negatives, such as how the police can fail to trust rational evidence and insist on believing their faulty instincts about a certain suspect.

This prism humanizes Gladwell and makes him seem less coldly analytical and more compassionate toward human error and foibles. That greatly adds to the charm of his prose, which is always intelligent without pretension, easy to read and oddly memorable. This may be Gladwell’s most empathetic work. It’s engaging, great fun and a potential source of unexpected self-insight.

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