Talking to Strangers


This is the second book I have read from Malcolm Gladwell and each time it is filled with insights that I have never expected myself to glean from pretty standard situations. Talking to Strangers is not so much on communication breakdowns and cultural differences as I would have expected from the title, but more on the subtle human biases that affect our judgment of strangers.

The three things that Gladwell brings up are default to truth, transparency, and coupling.

1. Default to Truth

“You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.”

As humans, we assume that the people we are talking to, are honest. This reminded me of the Gricean maxims in Linguistics — where participants of an exchange are expected to keep to the Maxim of Quality which is to speak the truth. The concept of truth-default arose from Levine’s experiments where viewers of recorded clips are made to guess if the participants are lying about cheating in the experiment. And the results show that we are absolutely terrible at detecting lies, be it police officers, judges, or even CIA officers (the very people where a big portion of their jobs is to detect lies). But the evolution of humans showed that the majority of us default to truth because it serves to maintain the healthy functioning of society and communities. Or else we will be second-guessing everyone’s intentions all the time. What a tiring way to live life. I see both the value and danger of defaulting to truth and this concept just reveals a little why we are terrible at guessing lying strangers.

2. Transparency

The belief that people’s demeanour is a reliable guide to their emotions and character: transparency. This is an interesting segment because we are taught to observe how others are feeling by how they are expressing it on their faces. If a friend is frowning but saying that she is alright when asked, she is definitely not okay. But sometimes, things aren’t as simple, especially when people’s expressions are not congruent with what they are feeling. Once, I thought a colleague of mine was upset as he used a sarcastic tone and seemed more on the edge where he normally is a quiet person in the office. After clarifying, I realised that he truly is feeling alright and the signs that I was reading were wrong and not indicative of his true feelings. Don’t make the assumption that you are sensitive enough to detect one’s real feelings. It might be just ego speaking. Human beings are not transparent.

Transparency becomes a bigger issue when alcohol is involved and consent becomes muddled.

3. Coupling

“We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.”

This can be familiar to anyone who has read any habit building books. You try to build an environment that is conducive for a good habit’s cue to be triggered. If you place your bottle on the desk where you usually work on, there is a higher chance of you building a water-drinking habit than if the bottle is out of sight. The concept of coupling is similar — some actions occur precisely because of specific geographic locations or the ease of the means. Both the intention of the act and the place/means conducive for the realisation of the act are coupled for the act to occur. The examples Gladwell gave are on suicide and crime rates. This also entails that what works for one area does not necessarily translate to success in another as the original success is built on the exact context in which the act occurred. To replicate the success would need deep learning of different contexts and catering to each unique situation rather than a one-size-fits-all.

Final Thoughts

Humans are complex creatures. False dichotomy has been drawn to simplify the inner workings of humans. Realising our inherent biases only helps us to be more aware when talking to strangers, to not draw on our previous assumptions to judge them, and treat them as unique individuals.

some days i write

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