You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know: Talking to Strangers

Originally published November 2019

What is your default when you meet a stranger?

Are you hesitant? Trusting? Engaged? Or relying on physical cues to feel someone out?

It’s pretty easy to armchair quarterback an encounter after the fact, but, for example — if you met Hitler just prior to World War II, what are the chances you too would have taken him at his word when he said, “Yeah, not interested in western Europe — I just want the Czech territory.”

In super thinker Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, “Talking to Strangers,” the reporter-turned-bestselling author breaks down how people approach interaction with others they don’t know, and the science behind it. And it’s well worth a read if only to shake up and reform your perspective.

Using well-known examples of situations that went awry — world leaders dealing with Adolf Hitler, U.S. / Cuban relations, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner, Sandra Bland and more, Gladwell reports on several key factors that impact how we as human beings interact with and understand one another: our default to truth, transparency and coupling.

The majority of these examples are controversial, for sure — often drawing opinions that are black and white, cemented in a solid factual basis. Sandusky, for example — from a high-altitude perspective that most of us were privy to, we recognize Sandusky as the convicted pedophile he is and sat in shock during the investigation and trial, unable to understand how his deceptions could have gone on as long as they did, unnoticed. But it’s the default to truth by which most of us operate that made it impossible for those in the thick of it at the time to makes heads or tails of Sandusky’s actions.

The same applies for someone like Bernie Madoff — Gladwell shares the story of the one person that initially saw through Madoff’s scam, an independent fraud investigator by the name of Harry Markopolos. Markopolos is the rare individual who does not default to truth. Whose default is skepticism. Which, of course, makes him a great fraud investigator but also, probably, means he comes off as a bit of nutty. The problem inherent to Markopolos’ determination to out Madoff for the fraud he was is that Madoff’s outward persona did not match his intent. His physical and emotional presentation did not match that of his intent.

And while Madoff was able to get away with financial crimes much longer than he should have, Amanda Knox’s lack of transparency landed her in jail for the murder of her roommate. Despite no physical evidence, Italian authorities relied on their understanding of Knox’s awkward reactions to falsely determine her guilt. Gladwell’s reporting clues readers in to the notion that certain behaviors and displays of emotion are not necessarily universal — not everyone grieves the same way, expresses fear the same way, or shows anger the same way.

And then there’s coupling — intent, with the situational circumstances to match. A person with suicidal ideation standing on the Golden Gate Bridge. Particular neighborhoods that have the right environment that breeds crime. Gladwell breaks down the attempts to use science to approach crime fighting, and how this science of strangers when coupled with circumstances is not an easy puzzle to solve.

There’s so much in this book to unpack, but for me, the most illuminating section was that devoted to the Brock Turner case, and one’s ability to provide consent, or not, when you are blackout drunk. Couple that with a person’s inability to think long-term when drunk and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. And a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with binge drinking on campus these days.

It’s early, I just finished this, so I know I am going to be thinking about this for days or even weeks before I come to some sort of conclusion on what Gladwell thinks I should know about the people I don’t know. But I can say this: it’s an incredibly eye-opening read and will reshape your perspective in every day interactions — and not just with strangers. If you are looking for a good nonfiction, want-to-learn-something-about-myself kind of read, then look not further.

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