Just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Strangers. I’ve liked Malcolm Gladwell books in general, have found them fun to read and though provoking. This one is… a bit darker. It’s still written in the engaging Malcolm Gladwell style but the topic is not really a business trick but more of what is wrong with our society exemplified in some of the darker recent cases. He also jumps from story to story, interrupting a story in the middle to return or introduce another, which I think is a fun way to read.
He creates a narrative and an explanation of what has gone horribly wrong in certain encounters between strangers, starting and ending with the tragic story of Sandra Bland. Rather than go with the mainstream narrative, he goes deeper into what patterns in our society have led to this.
His big ideas are:
- Default to Truth
And he revisits them as sort of common fallacies that we all for or are conditioned to and why certain scenarios are set up to fail.
By “default to truth” he means that people are wired to believe that most people are telling the truth. Overall he says this is a good setup for society, and I think it makes sense, but it means that people who are “mismatched” can swindle people easily.
By “transparency” he means that people show on the outside in a way that matches certain behaviors or feelings on the inside, which isn’t true. Essentially this is why certain situations can be unnerving, someone who “looks guilty” but is just nervous. Or “acts suspicious.” Or seems trustworthy but is lying. Time and time again he shows where people get duped– one example being the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme. However, most people are probably telling the truth, and this is a good thing for society that we aren’t all walking around paranoid of every single person, but this does mean people can get fooled when in hindsight it seems like there was obvious evidence. There was evidence, but people dismissed it. For example, in TSA screenings, even if someone or something looks suspicious, the likelihood of finding something is so low, that almost all warning signs are false positives.
By “coupling” he means the idea that certain actions are really tied to certain places. He looks at crime maps and how misinterpretations of certain ideas led to a wave of pre-emptive policing that just didn’t work. And that even if there was lots of evidence to the idea of behaviors tied to places, people were very resistant to the idea.
So there is a big thread on trust in society that goes throughout the book that I think is interesting. Basically, it is better in your interactions, or in society in general to be trusting, that saves a lot of work–but opens people up to being scammed. And taking a paranoid stance, while that will help find certain issues others may have missed, has a real cost–he explores this in scenarios like Sandra Bland’s death, terrorist interviews, and others.
An interesting read. And a lot of dark subject matter. But I think the argument is interesting and generally pretty persuasive.
I think in this context the type of policing that is done, looking for minor infractions to then suspect people aggressively for other related things, has so much collateral damage and just needs to be done away with entirely.
With the people who were duped along the way who were trusting, such as a undercover CIA spy in Cuba, it seems to me that if this is an area people are so bad at (telling who is lying, for example), then what that means about so many of these general systems is that they really just don’t have any solid foundation.
I’m not sure this one has a neat conclusion. It has some identified patterns that I think make sense.
Here were some excerpts I highlighted from the book.
Part Two: Default to Truth
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Three: The Queen of Cuba > Page 78 · Location 877
You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them . Belief is not the absence of doubt . You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Four: The Holy Fool > Page 98 · Location 1111
He said the one fact he keeps in mind whenever he goes to the doctor’s office is that forty cents of every health – care dollar goes to either fraud or waste .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Four: The Holy Fool > Page 99 · Location 1118
The Holy Fool is a truth – teller because he is an outcast .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Four: The Holy Fool > Page 99 · Location 1118
Those who are not part of existing social hierarchies are free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Four: The Holy Fool > Page 99 · Location 1125
The closest we have to Holy Fools in modern life are whistleblowers . They are willing to sacrifice loyalty to their institution — and , in many cases , the support of their peers — in the service of exposing fraud and deceit .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Four: The Holy Fool > Page 100 · Location 1138
But the second , crucial part of Levine’s argument is that we can’t all be Holy Fools . That would be a disaster .
Part Three: Transparency
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Seven: A (Short) Explanation of the Amanda Knox Case > Page 185 · Location 2042
We’re all good at knowing when these kinds of people are misleading us or telling us the truth . We need help with mismatched strangers — the difficult cases .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Eight: Case Study: The Fraternity Party > Page 207 · Location 2334
what they meant by myopia is that alcohol’s principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Eight: Case Study: The Fraternity Party > Page 207 · Location 2336
Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background less significant .
Part Four: Lessons
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Nine: KSM: What Happens When the Stranger Is a Terrorist? > Page 262 · Location 2937
The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility . How many of the crises and controversies I have described would have been prevented had we taken those lessons to heart ?
Part Five: Coupling
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath > Page 273 · Location 3038
Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath > Page 274 · Location 3045
So which is it — displacement or coupling ? The modernization of British gas is an almost perfect way to test this question .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath > Page 279 · Location 3088
Now , why is this ? Is it because the people managing the bridge are callous and unfeeling ? Not at all . It’s because it is really hard for us to accept the idea that a behavior can be so closely coupled to a place .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath > Page 280 · Location 3105
The first set of mistakes we make with strangers — the default to truth and the illusion of transparency — has to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual . But on top of those errors we add another , which pushes our problem with strangers into crisis . We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath > Page 283 · Location 3136
said , maybe we ought to be more concerned with places . ”
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath > Page 284 · Location 3155
Weisburd refers to this as the Law of Crime Concentration . 6 Like suicide , crime is tied to very specific places and contexts .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath > Page 285 · Location 3158
And that means that when you confront the stranger , you have to ask yourself where and when you’re confronting the stranger — because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Twelve: Sandra Bland > Page 326 · Location 3634
And we have decided that we would rather our leaders and guardians pursue their doubts than dismiss them .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Twelve: Sandra Bland > Page 335 · Location 3725
It was , instead , about a particular style of policing that had been practiced in the city for years .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Twelve: Sandra Bland > Page 335 · Location 3726
Ferguson Police Department was the gold standard of Kansas City policing . It was a place where the entire philosophy of law enforcement was to stop as many people as possible for as many reasons as possible . “ It was very disturbing , ” Bains remembers .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Twelve: Sandra Bland > Page 342 · Location 3801
So it was that Brian Encinia ended up in a place he should never have been , stopping someone who should never have been stopped , drawing conclusions that should never have been drawn . The death of Sandra Bland is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Twelve: Sandra Bland > Page 342 · Location 3811
To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society .
Highlight (yellow) – Chapter Twelve: Sandra Bland > Page 343 · Location 3822
It was turned into something much smaller than it really was : a bad police officer and an aggrieved young black woman . That’s not what it was .