Talking to Strangers – another good read by Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell and highly recommend it. Gladwell is one of my favorite non-fiction authors and has penned multiple best sellers such as “Outliers,” “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point.” His style is to season examples with a touch of data and analysis, without infringing on the story.

“Talking to Strangers” shares numerous examples and data that we humans tend not to read strangers very well. The main reason is we “default to truth.” In other words, we give more benefit of the doubt to strangers than we should. A healthy dose of skepticism would help in this regard. Without giving too many of his examples away, here are few to think about.

  • Neville Chamberlain wanted to meet Adolph Hitler to see if he could be trusted at his word. It should be noted that Chamberlain was not the only person to meet Hitler and misread him. The ones who saw Hitler more clearly never met him.
  • Amanda Knox was convicted of a crime she did not commit on very flimsy evidence, primarily because she did not react to the news of her roommate’s murder as the Italian police expected her to. Her manner convinced them she had something to hide.
  • Bernie Madoff did not come across as someone who was running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. When investigators met him they could not believe he was so doing. Yet, a man who had not met Madoff named Nat Simons handed the case to the investigators years before they paid attention – he saw too may red flags and dug deeper.
  • Fidel Castro had seven double agents working in the CIA that went unnoticed for years until the US allies caught a key Cuban agent in Europe. The CIA dismissed what would have been red flags rationalizing that the lie detector was picking up a false positive, for example.
  • Brock Turner was convicted of raping a co-ed at Stanford, primarily on the evidence that two Swedish grad students came upon him having sex with a comatose women near a dumpster. Gladwell notes meeting a stranger at a college party is bad enough, but made far worse when both have been drinking.
  • The Penn State president and Athletic Directors could not believe coach Jerry Sandusky was a prolific pedophile. People gravitated to all the good he had done without heeding the first witness to have observed something. The witness was not forceful enough to follow-up and make sure something was done.
  • Sandra Bland was arrested on a very minor traffic offense in a conversation that went awry when it needed not. There were too many incidences where the conversation could have been diffused, yet was not. She was taking a job at Prairie State University in Texas and her Illinois license plates gave Officer Brian Encinia pause. She committed suicide in her jail cell.

Gladwell highlights a study that concluded through tests that we tend to think people who are innocent, but nervous or anxious, as guilty and tend to give a free pass to the good bluffer who is guilty. The folks inbetween, we tend to judge a little better. Given the above CIA and other intelligence, judicial and police examples, those who say they are better at judging are not as good as they think.

One of the examples noted a computer algorithm looking at criminal history was far better than a judge who met the person at setting bail or releasing the offender. The judges released too many that should have had higher bail. Another noted the use of torture was not a good elictor of truth, as when people are tortured, they go into trauma and cannot recall the truth very well.

Like all Gladwell books, “Talking to Strangers” is a quick read. Yet, I hope you will walk away with a few nuggets of knowledge as I did.