Talking to Strangers

What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know
Malcolm Gladwell

This is the most unexpected page-turner I’ve ever read.

The writing style made me feel like reading a compilation of short novels. It was interesting, and even exciting, until I remembered that those were real life stories.

The main argument in the book is that interacting with strangers requires both sides to use a set of strategies that translate one another’s words and intentions. Failing to do that, which is easy due to cognitive biases, will sometimes end in very bad results.

The book starts by introducing the suicide of Sandra Bland days after being arrested in what was an out-of-control interaction with Brian Encinia, and a brief description of the Moctezuma-Cortés encounter.

I remember learning about La Malinche in elementary school, but I’m doubtful on whether I learned about Gerónimo del Aguilar. He was a spanish priest that learned mayan while in Yucatán.

In the encounter, he and La Malinche were the translators. Del Aguilar would translate spanish to mayan, and then La Malinche would translate mayan into náhuatl.

According to Matthew Restall, náhuatl has a reverential mode that makes it harder to translate, and that summed up with the chained translations, may have ended in a complete misunderstanding of the real messages they tried to communicate each other.

Just because of this brief description of the encounter, I’m adding When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History to my reading list.

The book then tries to explain the main causes of misunderstanding between strangers, and uses some real life examples for each one.

  1. Two Puzzles (or why it’s hard to tell whether someone is lying or not) uses the story of

a) the US spying operations in Cuba that ended up being Cuban spying operations on the US, and

b) how almost every national leader that got to talk to Hitler ended believing him that his ambitions were limited to Czechoslovakia.

  1. Default to Truth (or how sometimes a lot of doubts are not enough doubts) uses the story of

a) Scott Carmichael choosing to ignore some suspicious behavior from Ana Belén Montes, one of the most regarded analysts in the DIA, who actually was a cuban spy,

b) SEC investegators allowing Bernard Madoff to continue with his Ponzi scheme, even when having some (but not enough) doubts about his “gut feeling” for the market, and

c) the differences between Jerry Sandusky’s and Larry Nassar’s prosecution for pedophilia.

  1. Transparency (or how failing to display transparency can make you look like a liar) starts explaining that facial expressions are not universal. Not even the ones that signal hapiness, anger, fear, or disgust. The two stories are

a) Amanda Knox’s imprisonment for the murder of Meredith Kercher, because she was a “mismatch”: being innocent but acting guilty, and

b) the People v. Turner case, in which Brock Turner was charged for rape of an intoxicated person. This story elaborates on alcohol and its effects on your consciousness, since they (Turner and “Doe”) met at a party, both being heavily drunk (past “blackout”).

  1. Lessons only tells one story. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed confession after 4 years of his capture.

Investigators used “enhanced interrogation techniques” trying to obtain information from him, including sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

What happened next is a matter of great controversy. The methods of interrogation used on KSM have been the subject of lawsuits, congressional investigations, and endless public debate. Those who approve refer to the measures as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—EITs. Those on the other side call them torture.

  1. Coupling (or why context matters when predicting behaviors) is about

a) Sylvia Plath’s suicide with stove gas, and why thinking that “whoever wants to kill thyself will find the ways to do it” is an inaccurate argument,

b) the Kansas preventive patrol experiment, in which they’d concentrate patrols in high-crime rate neighborhoods and stop cars over the simplest reasons just to justify inspection, which lead to 1,090 traffic citations, 948 vehicle stops, 616 arrests, 532 pedestrian checks, and 29 guns seized in just 200 days, and

c) Sandra Bland and Brian Encinia “misunderstanding”, which the author links to other states trying to follow Kansas succesful preventive patrol experiment.

One topic that caught my interest was Dwight and Anna Heath’s trip to Bolivia in Part 3, where they joined drinking parties. These were heavily ritualized: they sat in a circle, some of them playing drums or guitar. The host fills a glass with alcohol, stands up, and chooses another member of the circle, who drinks the glass, fills it again, and repeats the process. A drinking game à la duck, duck, goose.

“There was no social pathology—none,” Dwight Heath said. “No arguments, no disputes, no sexual aggression, no verbal aggression. There was pleasant conversation or silence.” He went on: “The drinking didn’t interfere with work.…It didn’t bring in the police. And there was no alcoholism either.”

This was explained with the theory that alcohol isn’t an agent of inhibition, but an agent of myopia. Meaning that alcohol narrows our emotional and mental fields of vision. This means that what you’ll behave when drunk, depends on what’s your surrounding while you do it.

Drinking puts you at the mercy of your environment. It crowds out everything except the most immediate experiences.

I’d like to close with one of my favorite excerpts from Part Four:

Whatever it is we are trying to find out about the strangers in our midst is not robust. The “truth” about Amanda Knox or Jerry Sandusky or KSM is not some hard and shiny object that can be extracted if only we dig deep enough and look hard enough. The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a second cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility. How many of the crises and controversies I have described would have been prevented had we taken those lessons to heart?