Whilst in South Africa in March I read Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, an interesting journey into how things can go very wrong when me misread the actions of strangers. Through a series of case studies, Gladwell asks how it is possible that a policeman can end up shooting an innocent young woman for no reason, how a spy can go unsuspected by all of her colleagues for many years, how a young woman can be accused of murder with no evidence against her and why we can find ourselves trusting financial swindlers. He argues that all of these come down to different types of problems with strangers.
His thesis is that the strategies we use to translate the word’s and intention’s of strangers are often flawed. We are hopeless at assessing the character of strangers and meeting them can actually make us worse at assessing them accurately. We are often unable to tell when a stranger in front of us is lying to our face, as Chamberlain was when he met Hitler, determined to see what he wanted to see, regardless of the evidence. We tend to judge strangers on the flimsiest of clues and we are not good at it, not least because of our strong ‘default to truth’, which makes it easier for us to believe someone than to distrust them, often despite many red flags that should push us over the threshold of belief. There’s a great example of the man who first realised that Bernie Madoff was a financial criminal, who got there because of a strong and usual default to not believe in the good intentions of others.
It turns out that reading people is a lot harder than we think it is, and as Gladwell points out, we do not act out our emotions on our faces, as the actors in the sitcom Friends do. Yet, we still think people’s behaviour and demeanour on the outside accurately represents what they feel on the inside. It’s why you’re more likely to get off with a shorter sentence if a judge thinks you have ‘showed remorse’, or why we disbelieve those caught up in murder cases if they do not behave the way we expect them to. Family members not crying at a press conference? Well then, they must have done it. When honest people act dishonestly or vice versa, they are mismatched, and we find that hard to deal with.
Gladwell shows us all of this to argue that the right way to deal with strangers is to accept that we are bad at it (along with everyone else), not to jump to conclusions, to talk to strangers with caution and humility, and to pay more attention to the context that the stranger is operating in, because where and when you meet a stranger influences your interpretation of who they are. Good lessons for us all.