Talking to strangers

Malcolm Gladwell, 2019

I was just thinking, there’s simply too much stuff! Good stuff! Too many books to read, movies to watch, podcasts to listen to, too much music to check out, art to appreciate. And I want to create as well as consume! Anyway, I do what I can…

This is one of my first audiobooks, so it’s hard to compare technically to others, but it works really well. Read by the author, illustrating his text with other relevant audio where appropriate, it seems to make the most of the opportunities offered by the format.

In terms of content, I was disappointed for the first half. Expecting more some kind of analysis of interpersonal communication, I was instead given case studies of deception. From Madoff’s financial scamming to Cuban double agents in the American security services, it was about how people get away with conning others.

Gladwell’s point is that, in the first instance, we believe others are honest. Default to Truth he calls it. But the examples given were only from the USA – the whole book is very US-centric – which just made me question the entire thesis.

In my experience, US people (they call them estadounidense in Spanish, which is much better than the too-general, inaccurate term ‘Americans’) on the whole have a kind of naive innocence about the ways of the world. To a cynical Brit like me, it’s refreshingly open! They take things as they appear, perhaps missing any subtext, not reading between the lines.

So in psychology experiments about the ability to perceive deception in others, people are shown to be really bad at spotting a liar. They assume straightforwardness. But are only American people bad at it? It is a plain-speaking culture that expects you to say what you mean. Europeans, at least, use irony and sarcasm more, for instance. Some cultures have loads of different ways to say no that avoid actually saying no outright. This is a well-researched difference in communication style.

So for me, Gladwell’s assertion that “our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest” could be seen as an example of American universalism. A belief that what’s true in the USA is true for all of humanity. I love the USA, but this strikes me as pure American arrogance (and Mr Gladwell is English/Jamaican/Canadian).

(An aside: I listened to a podcast recently about how to make cities more liveable. Apparently public transport is the answer not tech innovation like self-driving cars. NO SHIT!!! We know this. Old Europe/Asia/Africa/South America rolls its eyes at the young naive upstart that thinks it has discovered something new. It reminds me of me when I was 17 telling 25-year-olds about this great cool film I saw called Quadrophenia (1979, very well known) that they must see. The rest of the world just quietly gets on with it.)

But it does get better. There are three parts to Gladwell’s thesis: along with Default to Truth, we assume Transparency, and we act when events are Coupled.

Transparency is the assumption that how people express themselves – behaviour, words, and facial expressions – reflects how they actually feel. Any psychotherapist can tell you how common it is for there to be a mismatch between the surface and what’s going on inside, and one lesson I have learnt in life is how things appear and how things are can be very different indeed. But it’s true, most of the time in everyday life, we assume we can read someone’s thoughts and feelings by how they look and how they act.

Coupling is basically context. Gladwell gives examples of suicide prevention that does reduce suicide by a particular method, rather than just displacing it, and crime happening only in particular places.

When all three come together, they create a situation where understanding a person that we don’t know can become an impossible task with disastrous consequences.

In summary, the book is well-researched, the argument well-presented, and the examples interesting. I think the title is a little misleading. I guess I was expecting more of a guide to improving interpersonal relations with people I don’t know. I don’t think his argument is especially novel nor groundbreaking, but the book does do well in examining the case studies to draw out general themes and connect them in useful ways.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s