Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell Summary

Talking to Strangers Cover

Talking to Strangers

What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know

My Thoughts

This is the first Malcolm Gladwell book that I have read, and I loved it. The central focus of Talking to Strangers is trying to understand the circumstances that led to the death of Sandra Bland. The book is heartbreaking and insightful. I strongly recommend reading it.

My Favorite Quotes

  • If you don’t begin in a state of trust, you can’t have meaningful social encounters.
  • The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.
  • There are clues to making sense of a stranger, but attending to them requires care and attention.

Key Questions

  • Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?
  • How is it that we can be worse off after meeting a stranger, than not meeting them?

Introduction

Prejudice and incompetence go a long way towards explaining social dysfunction in the United States.

Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at understanding each other through multiple layers of translation.

Part 1: Spies and Diplomats – Two Puzzles

Talking to Strangers is identifying and trying to solve two puzzles:

  • Puzzle 1: why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?
  • Puzzle 2: how is it that we can be worse off after meeting a stranger, than not meeting them?

The illusion of asymmetric insight. This is the conviction that we know others better than they know us, and that we may have insights about them that they lack, but not vise-versa.
This leads us to talk when we would do well to listen, and to be less patient than we ought to. We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues.

Part 2: Default to Truth

Why are we so bad at detecting lies?

Truth Default Theory (TDT) developed by Dr. Timothy Levine, explains why everyone is bad at judging whether people are telling the truth or not. We are bad at detecting lies.

Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.

To snap out of TDT requires a trigger. A trigger is not the same as a suspicion or the first sliver of doubt. We fall out of TDT only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. We start by believing, and we stop only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.

The second crucial component of Tim Levine’s ideas about TDT is the holy fool or whistleblower (the whistleblower is the modern version of the holy fool).

Holy fools are willing to sacrifice loyalty to their institutions, and in many cases, the support of their peers, in the service of exposing fraud and deceit. A holy fool has a different sense of the possibility of deception.

Harry Markopolos is a good example, he has no high threshold before doubts turn into disbelief.

The statistics say that the liar and the conman are rare, but to the holy fool, they are everywhere. We need holy fools in our society from time to time, they perform a valuable role.

Under normal circumstances, defaulting to truth makes logical sense. The advantage to human beings lies in assuming that strangers are truthful. The tradeoff between truth default and the risk of deception is “a great deal for us.” What we get in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie are efficient communication and social coordination. The benefits are huge, and the costs are trivial in comparison.

If you don’t begin in a state of trust, you can’t have meaningful social encounters.

Doubts are not the enemy of belief, they are its companion.

Default to truth becomes an issue when we are forced to chose between alternatives; one of which is likely, and the other of which is impossible to imagine. Default to truth biases us in favor of the most likely interpretation.

Part 3: Transparency

How is it that judges do a worse job of evaluating defendants than a computer program? Even though judges know a lot more about defendants than the computer does? This section is an attempt to answer that puzzle.

Jennifer Fugate is a psychologist and an expert on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). FACS is a system for looking at someone’s facial expressions and scoring them. He gives some examples such as the Duchenne smile.

You can watch friends without sound and understand the plot points because the actors’ performances and facial expressions are transparent.

Transparency is the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor, the way they represent themselves on the outside, provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.

Transparency is the second of the crucial tools we use to make sense of strangers. When we don’t know someone, or can’t communicate with them, or don’t have the time to understand them properly, we believe we can make sense of them through their behavior and demeanor.

Transparency is a myth, an idea we picked up from watching too much television and reading novels.

We believe people when they are matched, we don’t believe them when they are mismatched.

When a liar acts like an honest person, or when an honest person acts like a liar, we are flummoxed.

Human beings are bad lie detectors when people are mismatched.

Part 4: Lessons

The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumble under our feet.

We need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth.

The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.

Part 5: Prairie View Texas

Default to truth and the illusion of transparency have to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual. On top of this, we add a third problem which is that we do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.

When you confront a stranger, you have to ask yourself where and when you are confronting the stranger. Because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.

Coupling is the notion that a stranger’s behavior is tightly connected to place and context. Something about the idea of coupling eludes us.

Conclusion

We are inept at understanding strangers. We think that we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the known, and we can’t.

What should we do in response to these findings?

  1. We can start by no longer penalizing each other for “defaulting to truth.”
    A. To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society.
    B. Those occasions that violate our trust in nature are tragic, but the alternative, to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception, that alternative is worse.
  2. We should accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers.
  3. What is required when talking to strangers is restraint and humility.

There are clues to making sense of a stranger, but attending to them requires care and attention.

My Action Steps After Reading

  • Improved my metal models on understanding strangers. Specifically the idea that transparency is a myth and we cannot always understand people by their behavior and demeanor, specifically when they are mismatched.
  • Focusing on trying to have humility and restraint when talking to strangers.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 80th book read in my 2019 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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