First Week, First Book. I came across the book ‘Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know’ while listening to one of the Revisionist History episodes. By the way, if you haven’t yet, please check out this podcast ‘Revisionist History’ by Malcolm Gladwell where he goes back into the past to explore and reinterpret some of the key happenings, people, and ideas. Also, to get a glimpse of what the book is about and his podcast, try the episode ‘The Queen of Cuba’.

Through the five parts in the book, Malcolm attempts to convey a key message; understanding and making sense out of strangers is not an easy task. We tend to think that somehow, we have got the inborn ability to look into the other person’s heart based on ricketiest of clues. Still not compelling? Ask yourself these questions, have you ever misjudged a person in a good or bad way based on their look, reactions, or third person descriptions? Did your miscalculation lead to cascading disasters? Have you ever mistaken someone’s external appearance as their true self, only to be revealed later that they are a completely different person? If so, this is the book you must read. The paragraphs below may contain a few spoilers; however, I have tried my best to avoid. If you are planning to read the book, it is best to come here later.

The book is divided into five parts: Spies and Diplomats, Default to Truth, Transparency, Lessons, and Coupling. In each part Malcolm takes a key idea as the names indicate, and explores them with the help of compelling examples from the past, this includes the famous cases such as The Queen of Cuba, The Munich Agreement, The Bernie Madoff Ponzi Scheme, Penn State child sex abuse scandal and many more. I have summarised below some of the key takeaways from the book.

The default to truth problem and how it biases us in favour of most likely interpretation. In this age of information, we read a lot of things each day and listen to a huge crowd as compared to people 3 to 4 decades earlier. To be honest, we do not and to some extent, cannot afford to behave like clearheaded scientists, to explore each and every piece of information for its validity. That leaves us into believing into things that appear convincing (which again depends on our preconceived notions, thought process, and tons of other things). The modern society is held together based on the assumption of trust in others, which, when violated leads to tragic outcomes. On the other hand, to be suspicious about everything can make our life a living hell.

“Belief is not the absence of doubt” Chapter 3 The Queen of Cuba (Page 71)

In the chapter The Queen of Cuba, Malcolm goes on to explain the story of Ana Montes, a highly placed senior analyst with the DIA who was later convicted and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage for Fidel Castro. She hid in the plain sight for 15 odd years and progressed higher and higher in ranks in the government without raising suspicion. Several people had a suspicion about her over the years, but she continued to work until the evidence was so striking that people had to step in. The story teaches us a key lesson;

Default to truth biases us in favour of most likely interpretation. Chapter 5 The Boy in the Shower (Page 115)

Transparency is a myth. The appearances and the inner self aren’t always the same for a lot of people. Unlike we are taught or made to believe that a person’s behaviour and body language is reflective of their though process, a lot of times this isn’t true. Such assumptions lead to disasters such as one in the case of Sandra Bland or Amanda Knox. Quite often, when we are confronted with an unknown person, we assign a stereotype to them, interpreted from a limited interaction. This is a reaction from a part of our brain that sees a constant need for keeping things in the know. It turns out, this stereotyping goes wrong too often than we think. However, this profiling also is a requirement, without which we cannot establish relationships with society.

Going further, Malcolm dissects the case People of the State of California v. Brock Allen Turner (2015) to explain the mismatch problem. The case helps us explore the myopic behaviour people exhibit when drunk. As in the case of Brock Turner, where two strangers were blindly drunk, and resulting myopia removes all the restraints and impairs the ability to evaluate long term consequences of behaviour.

In the chapter The Friends Fallacy, the author explored how easily facial expressions could be mistaken or used for interpreting one’s behaviour.

The unobservables create noise, not signal. Chapter 6. The Friends Fallacy (Page 144)

Finally, he explains what is called The Coupling Phenomenon. Besides the fact that we fail to make sense of a stranger as an individual, we also fail to interpret the context in which they tend to operate. To elaborate on this, Malcolm has used two famous case studies on suicides; Suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge and The British Gas Suicide Story. In both cases, the suicides were clearly found to be linked to the availability of a compelling means of committing suicide, one that was painless or one that seemed very doable. Yet, in case of the Golden Gate Bridge, it took 70 odd years and a lot of convincing to install safety nets to reduce the number of suicides.

On the whole, the book presents different issues arising from communication errors. There exist different opinions about the Sandra Bland case as to why the tragedy took place. Various people who explored the issue have gone on to press different angles, among which one case if of failed communication.


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