Disclaimer: This book review deals with serious themes such as suicide, sexual violence, and child abuse.
While most of us are refraining from talking to strangers due to COVID-19, the book Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell should be on everyone’s to-be-read list. I didn’t know about the brilliance that is Malcolm Gladwell until a colleague mentioned Outliers a few months ago. A quick search on Goodreads revealed that Gladwell has written six insightful books. And, as if the Goodreads recommendations weren’t convincing enough, one of my favourite podcasts, Armchair Expert, had Gladwell on as a guest and after listening to the interview, I couldn’t wait to read his books.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know focuses on how easily we misunderstand the people we encounter in our everyday lives.
The book starts with the encounter between a young African American woman named Sandra Bland and a white police officer Brian Encinia in July 2015. Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change in a town west of Houston, Texas. A video of their encounter (recorded by the video camera on Encinia’s dashboard) was uploaded to YouTube and shows how their interaction escalated. Bland was arrested and jailed. She was found hanged in her jail cell three days after her arrest.
“Talking to Strangers is an attempt to understand what really happened by the side of the highway that day in rural Texas.”
Lesson 1: We tend to believe what we’re told
To try and understand how Bland and Encinia’s encounter went so completely wrong, Gladwell brilliantly combines social experiments, psychological studies, statistics, and examples from history and infamous legal cases.
One of the first stories in the book is about how DIA agents were unable to identify a Cuban spy that had been working alongside them for years. Ana Montes was a Cuban intelligence analyst for the DIA and a Cuban spy. Gladwell explores the idea that even when the truth is staring us in the face, we are still more likely to believe that what we are told is true.
“We’re truth-biased. For what turn out to be good reasons, we give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that the people we’re talking to are being honest.”
Gladwell explains that it’s necessary to conform to this truth biased for society to function. If we doubted everyone we meet, the world wouldn’t function as it should.
Lesson 2: We shouldn’t believe everything we’re told
Okay, this lesson is kind of obvious but it goes back to the saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Gladwell looks at the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme that swindled rich people and charitable institutions out of $50 billion. Madoff was a successful businessman and his firm was the largest market maker on the Nasdaq.
So, it’s easy to see why people would trust him with their money. But there was a mismatch between his intent and demeanour. Madoff was only exposed when an obscure security analyst, Harry Markopolos, couldn’t figure out how Madoff was making his money. Gladwell argues that while we need to conform to truth-biased for society to function, we also need people like Markopolos to expose the truth.
Lesson 3: Circumstances matter
Gladwell devotes a whole chapter to Sylvia Plath’s suicide and uses her story as an example of coupling.
“Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.”
In Plath’s case, suicidal tendencies coupled with the availability of “town gas”, which included a variety of different compounds including the odourless and deadly carbon monoxide, led to her death. “Town gas” was widely used in British households after the First World War to power stoves and water heaters.
Gladwell explores the idea that suicide rates could drop if we change the circumstances and conditions that lead to suicide. In Britain, thousands of deaths were prevented when they switched to the much safer natural gas.
The chapter also explores the counterargument that if one method is taken away, individuals with suicidal tendencies would just find another way to kill themselves.
“The assumption that people would simply switch to another method is called displacement. Displacement assumes that when people think of doing something as serious as committing suicide, they are very hard to stop.”
Psychologist Richard Seiden investigated this theory and followed up on 515 people who had tried to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco between 1937 and 1971 but had been unexpectedly restrained. “Just 25 of those 515 persisted in killing themselves some other way,” Gladwell writes. Seiden’s research confirms Gladwell’s theory of coupling. “The decision to commit suicide is coupled to that particular bridge.”
These case studies could prove valuable when municipalities and organisations need to consider funding for suicide prevention initiatives. If the behaviour is coupled to a certain place, making the place safer seems like an obvious choice. Interestingly, a suicide barrier was only installed at the Golden Gate Bridge in 2018; 81 years after the bridge opened.
Lesson 4: People don’t always wear their heart on their sleeve (or their face)
Gladwell also looks at the Amanda Knox case and how her odd behaviour was interpreted as guilt. Knox was the main suspect in the brutal murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007. While most of Kercher’s friends were in tears, Knox was seen kissing her boyfriend, buying red underwear, and impressing a policeman with her yoga poses.
“If you believe that the way a stranger looks and acts is a reliable clue to the way they feel … then you’re going to make mistakes.”
When someone is surprised, we expect them to gasp and raise their eyebrows, when they are angry we expect a furrowed brow and tight mouth, and when they are sad we expect downcast eyes and a quivering lower lip. Gladwell uses an episode of Friends to explain how we expect people to act in a stereotypical way when they are surprised, angry or sad. But not everyone conforms to these norms and when they don’t, we see them as being insincere.
“We know that our mistaken belief that people are transparent leads to all manner of problems between strangers. It leads us to confuse the innocent with the guilty and the guilty with the innocent.”
Lesson 5: Understanding behaviour is not the same as excusing it
Lastly, Gladwell circles back to Bland and Encinia. A Kansas City experiment in the early 1990s saw the police department assign two extra patrol cars to a crime-riddled neighbourhood. The experiment aimed to curb gun violence. The officers were told to use whatever pretext they could find in the traffic code to pull over suspicious-looking drivers. The experiment was a huge success and cut gun crimes in the neighbourhood in half.
Many police departments across America adopted the strategy and started pulling over more motorists. Gladwell, however, argues that they had forgotten one important part of the experiment: it was focused on a crime-riddled neighbourhood at certain times of the day. “Kansas City had been a coupling experiment,” Gladwell writes. If Encinia had been trained to focus on suspicious motorists in certain parts of the city at specific times of the day, he probably wouldn’t have pulled Bland over. There were obviously more things wrong with their encounter than just the fact that Encinia pulled Bland over, but I’ll leave it to Gladwell to explain.
Talking to Strangers has received mixed reviews with some readers saying that Gladwell seems to be excusing Encinia’s behaviour and that of convicted rapists and child abusers. I don’t think trying to understand someone’s actions excuses their behaviour. If Montes, Madoff, and Encinia were simply villains, punishing them would be the simple solution. Talking to Strangers, however, suggests that their actions indicate systemic failure and that is a much bigger problem to solve.
I would argue that asking unsettling questions is part of Gladwell’s charm. He forces you to think differently and look at things from a different perspective. The book reminded me of a quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray:
Most of us think that we are pretty good at summing people up, but it turns out we’re not. Talking to Strangers asks us to pause before forming a steadfast opinion about a stranger.