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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know
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Publisher: Little Brown & Co.
Also available in audiobook
Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell is so popular that his last name has become an adjective. All of his first five books were New York Times bestsellers. The sixth one, “Talking to Strangers,” is no less Gladwellian than them: an absurdly spellbinding book, it combines anecdotes, stories, and social science studies to discover what goes wrong when we talk to strangers. So, sit back and get ready to discover yourself!
On June 6, 1987, a man named Florentino Aspillaga presented himself at the gates to the United States Embassy in Vienna. Although the senior staff was all at home, he got the guard’s immediate attention: “I am a case officer from Cuban Intelligence,” he said. “I am an intelligence comandante.” He wasn’t lying: as it soon became obvious to the CIA officers who debriefed him, this was one of the greatest walk-ins of the Cold War.
Aspillaga had only one request: to meet a highly-regarded CIA agent known to Cuban intelligence as “el Alpinista,” the Mountain Climber. With his condition met, Aspillaga finally revealed the bombshell: every single Cuban spy on the CIA payroll was actually a double agent, faithful to Fidel Castro and feeding the U.S intelligence agency with falsified information for years.
In other words – as Castro himself gloatingly revealed in an 11-part documentary released soon after – “the most sophisticated intelligence service in the world had been played for a fool.” After the Berlin Wall fell, East German spy chief Markus Wolf publicized in his memoirs that the situation was no different there as well: “not a single CIA agent had worked in East Germany without having been turned into a double agent or working for us from the start.” he wrote.
Now, the Mountain Climber was “one of the most talented people at one of the most sophisticated institutions in the world.” That’s why Aspillaga wanted to talk to him: he revered him. And yet, he had been fooled completely by a host of people working under him. How? And, if he could be misled, then what of the rest of us? That’s Gladwell’s first puzzle: Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?
For Gladwell’s second puzzle, allow us to take you back even further in time to the eve of World War II. Britain’s prime minister at the time was a conservative named Neville Chamberlain, highly regarded both by his people and most of the world’s political leaders. On September 15, 1938, Chamberlain left London for Munich – intending to negotiate peace with Adolf Hitler before any war had even begun. Namely, just a few weeks later, Hitler had announced his aim to invade the German-speaking part of the Czech Republic, threatening world war in case anyone intervened.
In 1938, Hitler was a mystery: he enjoyed popular support at home, but none of the people who’d wage war against him for the next seven years – Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill – had ever even met him. Chamberlain wanted to find out if Hitler was someone who could be reasoned with or trusted. His first guess after spending a few hours with him: yes, he was. “Yesterday afternoon I had a long talk with Herr Hitler,” he said after returning to England the following day. “I feel satisfied now that each of us fully understands what is in the mind of the other.”
Chamberlain visited Germany two more times. By the third time, he was confident in his first impression: Hitler was neither crazy nor irrational – merely excited and patriotic. Consequently, the two signed a peace agreement, allowing Germany to invade the Sudeten German territory of Czechia. “My good friends, I believe this is the peace for our time,“ he said after returning home before a jubilant crowd. “I recommend you go home, and sleep quietly in your beds.” The quiet sleep lasted less than a year: on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and the world was at war.
Only two men in England didn’t believe Chamberlain’s intuition: Duff Cooper, a cabinet minister, resigned in protest after it, and a certain Winston Churchill described it as “the stupidest thing that has ever been done.” Even though neither of them had ever met Hitler, both saw him as a demagogue and a “duplicitous thug.” But how did they guess right? That’s Gladwell’s second puzzle: How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them? Believe it or not, the answer can be traced back to three simple tricks of our mind.
Introduced by American psychologist and communication professor Tim Levine, the truth-default theory suggests that we’ve been wired by evolution to trust each other. When shown random videos of people being either deceitful or honest, we come up much better than chance at correctly identifying who is telling the truth; however, we also come up much worse than chance at correctly identifying who is lying. In other words, liars don’t really need to do anything to deceive us: we default to believing them.
That’s why “the Mountain Climber” didn’t suspect his Cuban agents. That’s why American market maker Bernie Madoff could operate for years the largest Ponzi scheme in world history. Even when financial fraud investigator Harry Markopolos tried alerting the authorities, nobody believed him: after all, how could anyone commit a $60-billion fraud without being caught? Eventually, Markopolos proved to the world that he was right, but it took a lot of time and a lot of effort. Simply because people trust by default.
“Because we trust implicitly,” writes Gladwell, “spies go undetected, criminals roam free, and lives are damaged. [However] the price of giving up on that strategy is much higher. If everyone on Wall Street behaved like Harry Markopolos, there would be no fraud on Wall Street – but the air would be so thick with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street.”
“Friends” is one of the most beloved shows in television history. At the same time, it is also one of the most transparent. This is neither a compliment nor a criticism – merely an objective statement. It means that, basically, you can watch the show without sound and you’d still understand what’s going on. Because the actors make sure that every emotion their character is supposed to feel in their heart is expressed, perfectly, on their face. This is transparency: “the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor – the way they represent themselves on the outside – provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”
The problem? This is not always the case. Supposing that what happens on the outside matches what goes on inside your friend’s mind will rarely get you into trouble. However, Chamberlain’s transparency-based guess about Hitler proved catastrophically wrong. Because Hitler was mismatched: he looked as if he was telling the truth when, in fact, he was lying.
Bernie Madoff was no different: he was also a liar with the demeanor of an honest man, “a sociopath dressed up as a mensch.” Sometimes, it can be the other way around. Infamously, American student Amanda Knox spent four years in an Italian prison because of a murder – or, rather, because she looked suspicious to the authorities. She didn’t seem aggrieved or empathic after a friend of hers was brutally killed – but rather irreverent and guilty. She was, in fact, neither – just mismatched.
In February 1963, poetess Sylvia Plath sealed the rooms between her and her sleeping children with towels and tape, placed her head inside an oven and turned on the gas in the kitchen stove. Her dead body was found a few hours later by the nurse and a workman.
The year before Plath committed suicide, about 5,500 people in England had done the same thing; almost half of them used the very same method: carbon-monoxide poisoning. During the following decade, the British gas industry underwent a transformation, and by 1977, it replaced town gas (which included carbon-monoxide) with natural gas (which was far less harmful). Amazingly, once the most common form of suicide in England became a physiological impossibility – the number of people killing themselves declined drastically.
But why? Shouldn’t they have just resorted to alternative methods? The reason why they didn’t is that our behaviors are not determined by our psychological state only – they are coupled to a particular context. Coupling, in Gladwell’s explanation, implies that “behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.” In other words, many things depend on context – including the actions of a stranger and our interpretation of them.
Here’s a staggering fact that demonstrates best the importance of context: about half of the crime in cities around the world occurs in fewer than 5% of city blocks and streets. When in the 1990s, the Kansas City police forces identified the most problematic district, they installed patrols there and started pulling motorists for a quick checkup. They were taught to resist the urge to default to the truth – and suspect anyone until proven otherwise. When crime rates fell by almost half, other police departments started implementing this policy.
Unfortunately, not all of the officers were trained properly in this new method, nor were all the areas picked correctly. So, when Texas State trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, for failing to signal a lane change at a crime-free highway, almost everything went off the rails in no time.
At first, Bland was cooperative, but afterward, she started protesting against being pulled over and interrogated for such a minor violation. Just like Encinia – and almost any other human being in a similar situation – she too couldn’t understand the context. Training should’ve taught Encinia to deal with the situation with nuance: Bland, after all, couldn’t have guessed in a million years that he was merely practicing an evidence-based policing approach.
She grew more and more irritated and even refused to put out the cigarette, which she had lighted before to calm her nerves. Because Encinia had suspended his truthfulness, he misinterpreted this as suspicious behavior, so he threatened her with a stun gun and called backup. In reality, there was a mismatch – not between Bland’s behavior and her honesty, but between her demeanor and Encinia’s interpretation of it against a wrongly understood context.
Eventually, the trooper dragged Bland out of her car and handcuffed her. “You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?” she kept complaining as she was taken into custody for felony assault charges. Encinia was later fired, but Bland didn’t live to see that day: she was found dead in her cell, three days after being arrested. The cause of death was ruled asphyxiation by hanging. Gladwell digs deeper: it was, really, another fatal case of misreading strangers.
Not exactly vintage Gladwell, but even mediocre Gladwell can produce books of brilliance and importance. “Talking to Strangers” is definitely one such work.
We think we are nuanced and complex and programmed to believe that we can easily and correctly interpret the actions of strangers. “If I can convince you of one thing in this book,” writes Gladwell, “let it be this: strangers are not easy.”
Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian author and longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell is renowned for his unique viewpoints of popular culture, and author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw,” and... (Read more)
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