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How to Talk to Strangers: A Q&A With Malcolm Gladwell

In his new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, the New York Times best-selling author explores infamous communication breakdowns.

Malcolm Gladwell and his new book, Talking to Strangers, are pictured.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” So says the warden to Paul Newman’s chain-gang-prisoner character in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. And so echoes writer Malcolm Gladwell in his latest look at the human condition.

Gladwell is a sort of intellectual provocateur who often jolts us into seeing things anew. As a staff writer for the New Yorker, host of the Revisionist History podcast, and author of five New York Times bestsellers, he has carved out a niche by questioning assumptions that we hold as undeniable, indisputable truths — truths that he often proves mistaken, or indeed correct, but for entirely different reasons than we previously thought.

In his new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, Gladwell writes that a failure to communicate often undermines our well-meaning intentions in trying to assess the character of strangers. He offers many famously terrible — and often tragic — miscommunications, including British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 face-to-face meeting with Adolf Hitler, after which Chamberlain assured the world of “peace for our time,” and the momentous meeting between Aztec ruler Montezuma II and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519, where both sides may have believed the other was surrendering to them.

Gladwell also examines contemporary miscommunications, including law-enforcement interrogations, espionage debriefings, the Ponzi-scheme deceptions of Bernie Madoff, and more.

Meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them at all, Gladwell states. He holds up the example of the dozens of daily decisions made by New York City judges on whether to grant bail or not to defendants arrested and charged with crimes: If they’re allowed to go free pending their court date, is there a threat of them committing another crime? A study of 554,689 actual defendants from 2008 to 2013 tried to gauge how well the judges made this decision, compared with an artificial-intelligence system that was fed the same information but of course was not able to meet the defendants. The results showed that those who’d been granted bail by the computer were 25 percent less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial than those set free by the judges.

Meeting these strangers, Gladwell notes, introduces personal, perhaps unconscious, biases into the equation for the judges — the defendant’s physical persona, whether he or she is handsome or homely, and of course the elephant in the room when it comes to court justice, the person’s race. And not only do these biases make the judgment more difficult, but they’re also likely completely irrelevant to the decision.

Some of Gladwell’s case studies, though, seem oversimplified or even misdirected. The meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler is such an instance. Chamberlain believed Hitler’s promise that all he wanted was to take back the Sudetenland, the ethnically German portion of Czechoslovakia, and that he had no designs on the rest of Europe. Chamberlain was certain of peace because Hitler had given him “the double handshake that he reserves for specially friendly demonstrations.” Chamberlain met Hitler face-to-face — which few other world leaders did — and trusted him and that handshake. As Gladwell writes, the British prime minister “was acting on the same assumption that we all follow in our efforts to make sense of strangers. We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable.”

Gladwell argues that we have a “default to truth.” Humans have evolved to trust each other;  it’s necessary for our very survival. While the computer is objective in analyzing the facts of a case, we are programmed to be subjective — or at least to believe humans are honest.

But there was more to Chamberlain’s default to believe Hitler in this case. Chamberlain and Britain had survived World War I, and were determined — even desperate — to avert another world war. Chamberlain wanted to believe Hitler, and his trust may have been colored by history and not just that special handshake.

Gladwell bookends his examination by delving deeply into the agonizing story of Sandra Bland: In 2015, in Prairie View, Texas, Bland was pulled over on a routine traffic stop by state trooper Brian Encinia. The situation escalated and Bland ended up in jail, where, three days later, she was found hanged; her death was later ruled a suicide. Again, however, Gladwell seems to overlook a pivotal point. There was indeed a failure to communicate between Bland and Encinia, but even after an exhaustive retelling of the traffic stop, Gladwell disregards the issue of race — Bland was African American, Encinia white. The situation was simply more layered and complicated than a miscommunication.

Still, Gladwell’s investigation and message is of deep, abiding value. As he concludes, talking to — and making sense of — a stranger requires humility and thoughtfulness and a willingness to look beyond the stranger, and to take time and place and context into account. “Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers?” he asks. His answer: “We blame the stranger.”

We had a chance to talk to Gladwell recently about the book. Here’s what he had to say:

Experience Life You suggest we should approach strangers “with caution and humility” — can you explain why?

Malcolm Gladwell | I think that when you understand how hard it is to understand strangers — and all the mistakes we make in reading their intentions and motivations — then it’s clear we need to slow down. Don’t rush to judgment about others. Don’t assume that you can know someone after a brief encounter. Be cautious. And be humble about your own abilities as a mind reader.

EL Can you explain the concept of “default to truth”?

MG | This is an idea developed by the social scientist Tim Levine, whose work runs throughout Talking to Strangers. Levine was trying to solve a puzzle that has fascinated psychologists for years: Why are humans so bad at spotting liars? It seems like a skill that evolution would favor. But Levine argues the opposite. Human beings evolved as trusting machines. If we believe, implicitly, in others, we will be better at creating community, meaningful emotional bonds, cooperation, and all manner of other positive things. We’re built to “default to truth,” and the side effect of that is that we will also be easily deceived by the occasional sociopath.

EL | Are humans too trusting, especially of each other?

MG | No. We aren’t too trusting. Levine’s point is that being trusting has a benefit (it makes us capable of real community and engagement) and a cost (it makes us easy to deceive). But that tradeoff is a good one! There simply aren’t a lot of sociopaths out there! It’s way better to trust others and pay that occasional price.

EL | Do you have advice, thoughts, or wisdom on how to talk to strangers?

MG | The golden rule is always the best rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you treat strangers with honesty and compassion, you greatly increase the odds that they will treat you the same way.

is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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