Remember the 14th episode of the fifth season of the television show Friends — when Ross (David Schwimmer) finds out that his sister Monica (Courteney Cox) and best friend Chandler (Matthew Perry) are in a romantic relationship? (Hint: It’s the ‘One Where Everybody Finds Out’.) I bet we all do. The moment of clash in the particular scene involving the three characters is played for laughs, but for bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, it’s all about expressions. With the help of a coding system built by a research psychologist, Gladwell examines the actors’ shifting facial expressions: anger, fear, grief, honesty and bliss. Even though it’s just a brief scene in the sitcom, it is quite significant in Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. He states that, while the Friends’ cast may be excellent at conveying thoughts and feelings, the frankness of the characters’ — Ross, Monica and Chandler — inner experiences bears only a brief similarity to the real world.

According to Gladwell, human behaviour is not that simple and transparent. Yet the vast majority of us suppose it is. He calls this situation a “default to truth” hypothesis. This simply means that we are humans and overwhelmingly inclined to believe we know other people’s intentions — whether good or bad — although we are often mistaken. For the reason that liars and cheaters are comparatively few in the society, this belief allows us to retain focus, without inquiring about the intentions of every single person we come across throughout the day. Differences between a person’s appearance and his/her true motivation are normal and can have a serious effect on the assumption of guilt or innocence.

Talking to Strangers logs the hazards, not of interacting with strangers, but of being too faithful to our existing viewpoints. The author argues that the true risk comes from not assessing our own beliefs and ideas and the trust that we put into people in positions of power and authority.

Malcolm Gladwell takes on what the research tells us about our misperceptions about people’s motivations

The book makes a start with the tragic case of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman from the Chicago area who was arrested in 2015 when a state trooper pulled her over in Texas for a minor traffic violation. The situation escalated quickly and Bland even recorded a 40-second mobile phone video of the incident, which was later broadcast publicly. She was arrested by the police and taken into custody. Shockingly, she committed suicide in her jail cell three days later.

Bland’s was one of many cases that led to bringing allegations of police cruelty and racial bias to the forefront of public awareness during that time. Why did she choose to take her life? Why did this situation even take place? Unable to make a good judgement of such a pointless loss of life, Gladwell did what he does best: he analysed the data and proofs and began to look for fundamental causes. What he discovered was that human beings are prone to misapprehend, and misinterpret, one another based on certain commonly held presumptions that may be necessary to maintain a working society, but that can have disturbing consequences in individual circumstances.

Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them. — Excerpt from the book

The book then looks at a series of incidents of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) failure to notice spies from Cuba who embedded themselves in United States’ operations and how, because as humans we default to the truth, we are in reality terrible at sniffing out those who are misleading us. This is the case even for the most highly qualified people in power and position.

On the other hand, a few people don’t presuppose this way. And this is exactly why financier and investment advisor Bernie Madoff was able to play such a Ponzi scheme — one person who spoke up and out because things didn’t feel right was made to feel as though he was making a big deal — that no way could a big name such as Madoff who, as an exceptional investment consultant with an uncanny skill to foresee market movements, could be implicated in a business enterprise built entirely on theft and deception.

Gladwell then takes us to the Italy case of Seattle-resident Amanda Marie Knox. Knox, a self-described non-conformist, became an object of the opposite type of disparity. In spite of a total lack of any material evidence connecting Knox to the murder of her roommate, investigators admitted to basing their case on her behaviour during the examination. She was twice convicted and acquitted of murder and was kept in prison for almost four years.

When Gladwell investigates why she was believed to be a chief suspect, the answer is that Knox’s conduct didn’t hew with how people thought it should be in the middle of a tragedy and sorrow. She’s childish and silly by nature, and her actions after such a crime didn’t fit with the model people have of how she should have acted. So, they misunderstood her conduct as a sign of a guilty conscience, rather than taking into consideration that, perhaps, she acted the way she always does. (For those who are interested to know more about the case, there is an interesting documentary by Knox’s name on Netflix as well).

Lastly, the Brock Turner rape case is opened up, and it is looked at not from the perspective of rape culture and toxic masculinity — the description we all know and agree with because those aren’t incorrect — but rather, it is looked at from the point of alcohol, and how it stalls brain function. This was the case both for the victim and for Turner, making it impossible for a correct account of what really happened that night. There’s no rape apologising here; instead, it’s a look at the circumstances of the case that makes piecing it together difficult.

As always, Gladwell has done a credible sociological and psychological investigation into how we humans connect and why, time and again, communication goes wrong. Sadly, the book is more of an advisory account than it is inspirational. This is not about how to apply until you grow to be an outlier in your field or how we Davids can make use of our seeming flaws to bring down Goliaths. The optimistic point is that we can gain knowledge to keep away from the mistakes that get in the way of our perception of one another.

Talking to Strangers is full of interesting insights into our social blind spots and beliefs about each other. Sometimes I didn’t straight away understand what the current topic had to do with the subject but, in the end, Gladwell ties it all up together and, all in all, I enjoyed this book. I certainly did not agree with him on everything, but I liked reading through all the cases and studies and realising how hard it is to understand strangers, and how often we still expect and even depend upon it!

The book is the latest in Gladwell’s succession of bestsellers, counting Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Outliers: The Story of Success and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell is a well-known international journalist, author and speaker. He is also host of the podcast Revisionist History. His books mostly deal with the startling inferences of research in the social sciences.

The reviewer is a marketer, writer and publisher

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know
By Malcolm Gladwell
Penguin, US
ISBN: 978-0241351574
400pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 16th, 2020