Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers What should we know about people we don’t know?:awesome summary by ebookhike

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Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers: What we should know about people we don’t know Malcolm Gladwell 2019

Talking to Strangers
Talking to Strangers

Nice to meet you? (Talking to Strangers)

Talking to Strangers: For many centuries, people rarely encountered complete strangers. As a rule, they met with their neighbors, who believed in the same god, built similar dwellings and cities, fought with the same weapons, and according to similar rules. In the 16th century, this rule ceased to apply. When the Spanish conquistador Fernand Cortes met with the supreme ruler of the Aztecs, Montezuma, they both had no idea or understanding of each other. Everyone knows how this meeting ended: Montezuma was captured by the Spaniards and killed, and a bloody war began, which, together with epidemics of European diseases, claimed the lives of 20 million Aztecs, destroying their culture.

In today’s world, we are constantly confronted with people whose backgrounds, views of life, and beliefs are different from ours. How did a pedophile manage to work for many years as a sports coach at the university? Why did investors trustfully invest in Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheme for a long time? How did an American student end up in an Italian jail for a crime she didn’t commit? Why did CIA officers turn out to be successful agents of Cuban and Soviet intelligence? How is it that a freshman who was having fun at a student party was arrested for rape? In all these stories, some people relied on a stereotypical set of tools to understand the behavior and intentions of others – and each time they made tragic mistakes.

Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist, sociologist, and writer, author of the world bestsellers  The Tipping Point, The Insight,  Geniuses, and Outsiders. Gladwell’s new book is dedicated to analyzing and elucidating the causes of our stereotypes of perception, criticizing them, and trying to correct them.

Look into the eyes and see the soul

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed an agreement with Hitler in Munich, according to which the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia passed to Germany. This sad event, which went down in history under the name “Munich Pact”, happened after many hours of personal meetings between Hitler and Chamberlain, as a result of which Chamberlain came to the conclusion that “Hitler can be trusted.”

Talking to Strangers

Chamberlain acted like we all do when we try to get to know and understand strangers. We are convinced that a personal meeting – a chance to look into the eyes, to observe behavior and mannerisms – provides a unique opportunity to draw informed conclusions about the character and intentions of a person. However, all the additional information collected by Chamberlain in personal communication with Hitler did not at all help him recognize the true intentions of the dictator.

It is curious that not only Chamberlain, who had no experience in foreign relations, but also his much more knowledgeable foreign minister Lord Halifax, as well as the British ambassador to Germany, who spent a lot of time in the company of Hitler and his entourage, sincerely believed that Hitler was at war not interested. But people who saw through Hitler’s true intentions, such as Winston Churchill, never met him personally.

American judges find themselves in a difficult situation, who is responsible in a few minutes, during which the accused stands before the judge, to decide whether he can be released on bail before the trial and what size the bail should be. In fact, the judge is required to assess the character of a person he does not know. American justice believes (just as Chamberlain did with Hitler) that these kinds of difficult decisions are best made in person after the judge has looked the defendant in the eye.

However, the results of a study conducted by Harvard and Chicago Universities suggest otherwise. The researchers collected data on 554,689 defendants who went through bail hearings in New York from 2008 to 2013. 400 thousand of them were released by judges on bail. All this information was entered into a computer that compiled its own list of people worthy of bail. In this experiment, the computer won: people from the list, which he built on a formal analysis of written information, were 25% less likely to commit new crimes while at large before trial. A computer that processed only written information about the defendants was more accurate in assessing the risks of new crimes than judges who looked every defendant in the eye.

The CIA has experienced several very humiliating betrayals for this powerful organization when it turned out that its employees were successfully recruited and worked for the intelligence of Cuba, the GDR, and the USSR for a long time. Prime ministers are incapable of understanding the intentions of their political opponents. Judges are incapable of assessing the character of the accused. Scouts are mistaken for colleagues.

If even highly educated professionals are deceived, then what about mere mortals …

I believe – I do not believe

We are convinced that we are much better than others at understanding people. We speak when we should listen. We do not have the patience to deal with other people’s complaints of injustice. For some reason, we are sure that we see through the other person, relying on shaky and unreliable signs. Of course, we ourselves are complex, subtle, and mysterious beings. And strangers – everything is simple with them …

Not at all easy, Malcolm Gladwell is sure. Among the huge number of researchers on the topic of deception and lies, Tom Levin stands out, who managed to build a universal theory of deception. It is based on observations of participants in a simple experiment.

Students are invited to participate in the game. Each participant is offered to answer several questions on erudition, for the correct answers they promise a cash prize. Each participant in the game has a partner and a leader. In the middle of the game, the facilitator leaves the room, and the partner invites the participant to look into the answers left by the facilitator in plain sight. Some participants in the game agree to peep the correct answers, others do not. After the game is over, Levin conducts an interview with each participant in the experiment, in particular asking if he or she spied the correct answers. The interviews are being taped. No one who peeps the correct answers admits to cheating.

Talking to Strangers

Then different people are invited to view the recording of the conversation and determine which of the participants in the game is telling the truth and who is lying. The accuracy of answers to this question does not exceed 50%! Moreover, just like mere mortals, policemen, judges, psychotherapists, and intelligence officers are mistaken.

According to Lewin’s theory, we are programmed to trust people. We believe not because we do not doubt the veracity of a person, but because we do not have enough grounds for distrust. Therefore, one should not reproach the CIA employees for not being able to recognize the enemy agent in their ranks in time. The tendency to trust is natural for a person.

The history of the financial pyramid

In November 2003, hedge fund Renaissance Technologies acquired a stake in a fund run by New York investor Bernard Madoff. The Renaissance manager had doubts about the purity of Madoff’s fund operations: it is not clear what these outstanding results are based on. But he could not admit that Madoff was a fraud and a liar. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also had its doubts. SEC officials even met and talked with Madoff, who explained that he had a “gut feeling” about which securities to buy and which to sell. Many had doubts. And yet they were not enough to understand: Madoff is the biggest fraud in the history of financial markets. Tom Lewin’s theory is that in the absence of sufficient evidence to the contrary, we tend to believe in the veracity of a person receiving another confirmation.

Everyone believed Madoff except Harry Markopolos. He grew up in a family of immigrants and knew from childhood that the world is full of thieves and scammers, so he never trusted anyone. Markopolos first heard about Madoff in the late 1980s, when the foundation Harry worked for tried to copy Madoff’s “fantastically successful strategy.” Mathematical analysis has shown that Madoff’s business model simply does not make sense. Three times – in 2000, 2001, and 2005 – Markopolos turned to the SEC with evidence that the Madoff fund was a giant financial pyramid. Regulators didn’t believe him. Madoff’s scam was only discovered in 2008 when the FBI became interested in him.

However, the universal theory of deception teaches that if we forgot how to trust, this would be a disaster. Man has not evolved the ability to recognize deception because it is not evolutionarily useful to spend time scrutinizing the words and deeds of strangers. On the contrary, it is more profitable for people to believe in the veracity of others. According to Levin, in exchange for the risk of being sometimes deceived, we gain efficiency and coordination in society.

Of course, it is terrible that, as a result of our gullibility, criminals elude responsibility, spies steal state secrets with impunity, and destinies are broken. However, the cost of not being trustworthy is even higher. If every employee on Wall Street behaved like Harry Markopolos, suspicion and paranoia would not only create impossible conditions for fraud in the financial market but would destroy the market itself.

History of a sports coach

A few years ago, all of America was discussing the case of Jerry Sandusky, a football coach from the University of Pennsylvania convicted of sexually harassing underage boys. In 2001, an assistant to Sandusky saw him in the evening in the shower, cuddling up to a naked boy, and reported this to management. But the investigation began only 10 years later. After Sandusky’s conviction, investigators turned to university leaders who had been inactive for so many years. As a result, the university’s top football coach resigned in disgrace and died soon after, two senior managers were convicted of “conspiring, obstructing justice, and failing to report child abuse”, and the university president was fired and convicted of “leaving a child” in danger”. “.

Analyzing the materials of the case, the author of the book comes to the conclusion that the university authorities had enough reason to believe Sandusky, who denied sexual interest in teenagers, and doubt the veracity of the information about his malicious actions.

Sexual harassment cases are always complex and confusing, in which shame and denial are intertwined with half-erased memories. Knowing normal people’s tendency to trust, how could there be enough doubt about Sandusky’s veracity, especially if the kids adored him? The president of the university was not like Markopolos, he believed his employee.

Trust is not a crime, but a natural property of a person. If you suspect a pedophile in every coach, no parent will let their child out of the house and no normal person will want to become a coach. Therefore, we must trust people, otherwise, society will cease to function. And on those rare occasions when trust is betrayed, we should sympathize with the victim of the betrayal, not condemn them.

The story of a murder

Why is it important for a judge to see the accused in person? Because the judge, like all of us, is convinced that the external behavior and manners of a person reliably reflect his inner world. Gladwell calls this property transparency. If we do not have the time and opportunity to get to know a person intimately, we assume that we recognize him simply by observing his behavior and facial expressions.

Back in 1872, Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Animals and Man, in which he argued that the ability of a person to smile, frown, twist his mouth and wrinkle his nose in disgust, raise his eyebrows in surprise or widen his eyes in fear is the result of evolutionary development when human survival depended on the rapid and accurate transmission of emotions. There is certainly some truth in this.

But we also already know that the personal contact of the judge with the accused does not help the judge correctly assess his personality and intentions – rather, on the contrary. If a person is sad and looks at the floor with his head and shoulders down, this does not mean that he repents. People with emotional problems may look completely normal.

It is ironic that we believe in the need to make eye contact and insist on a face-to-face meeting, but at the same time, we forget about the huge probability of making a mistake. We strive to communicate with strangers, but we absolutely do not know how to do this.

Such a mistake was the case of Amanda Knox, convicted by an Italian court for the murder of her roommate in a small Italian town. Eight years after the crime, the Italian Supreme Court fully acquitted her. The investigation did not find any material evidence of Amanda’s involvement in the murder.

Among the million factors that played a part in her condemnation, Amanda’s behavior was decisive. She came across as cold and calculating, showed no sympathy for the victim, and generally behaved strangely. When she was brought to the scene of the crime, Amanda “swung her hips and said ‘ta-da’.” That is, the image of Amanda did not coincide with the generally accepted idea of ​​innocence.

We tend to judge a man’s honesty by his manners. A person with a well-delivered speech, self-confident, with a strong handshake, interested in the interlocutor, and friendly – must be honest. The person is nervous, fussy, with a shifty look, easily blushing, verbose, stammering, and confused in answers – he is probably hiding something.

In Tom Levine’s experiments, participants correctly identified a liar only if they matched the generally accepted notion of those who lie. And if the questions were answered by a girl who blushed easily, was verbose and confused in words, everyone took her for a liar, while in reality, she was telling the truth.

We live in a world where people with unconventional reactions and mannerisms are systematically discriminated against.

When a deceiver behaves as an honest person and an honest person behaves like a liar, we are completely confused. The already mentioned Bernard Madoff embodied the generally accepted image of directness, honesty, and reliability, and this made it possible for him to deceive many people for a long time.

History of a party

In 2015, a student and a student at Stanford University met at a party where they chatted, drank, and danced. For the student, the party ended in a hospital, where she woke up wearing a torn dress, pine needles in her hair, and no underwear. She was surprised to learn that she had been sexually assaulted. The student was arrested and subsequently convicted of attempted rape of an unconscious person. The student suffered from post-traumatic syndrome for a long time.

The main question that was decided by the court: did the student give her consent to enter into sexual relations? The student was fully confident that consent had been obtained. The student, long before sexual contact, ceased to understand what was happening to her, and subsequently claimed that she did not remember anything. The blood alcohol content of both went through the roof.

Talking to Strangers

We know that our ideas about a stranger, based on his behavior and facial expressions, often turn out to be erroneous. So even under the most favorable circumstances, an easy acquaintance at a party can lead to problematic consequences. And if you add alcohol…

Recent studies of alcohol intoxication have led to the conclusion that alcohol is not so much liberating as it makes a person short-sighted: everything that is close is brightly evident, and everything that is far away seems insignificant. A drunk person depends on the environment. If he is in the stadium surrounded by fans, the excitement of what is happening around him will help him to cheer up and forget about his more distant worries. If a person drinks alone in a quiet bar, he will definitely plunge into complete depression. Alcohol drives everything out of us, except for immediate momentary experiences.

Our personality is forced to constantly balance between immediate satisfaction of needs and more complex remote deterrents that force us to behave ethically, productively, and responsibly. When alcohol eliminates the importance of any long-term perspective, it erases part of our true self. Moreover, drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time leads to a memory lapse. In this situation, it is rather problematic to raise the question of consent or disagreement for sex.

Curiously, when students were asked what measures could reduce the number of sex crimes on campus, the most popular was more severe punishment for the attacker, followed by teaching girls self-defense techniques and teaching boys to treat girls with more respect. Only 33% of those surveyed said that drinking less alcohol could help, and only 15% found it helpful to limit the availability of liquor on campus.

Talking to Strangers

Until the public recognizes that it is impossible to expect a drunk young man to be able to adequately understand the feelings and desires of an unfamiliar drunk girl in the setting of a college party, the suffering, frustration, and disappointment that invariably follows sexual crimes will continue.

History of the poetess

In the winter of 1963, American poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of 30 by sticking her head in an oven and inhaling carbon monoxide. She lived in London, away from friends and family, and suffered from depression. Her husband left her. She often wrote about death and suicide. Friends and literary critics, knowing all these facts about her life and work, were not surprised by her act. They were sure that they knew her well and understood her motivation. But the author of the book tries to prove that Sylvia Plath’s suicide was not inevitable.

In 1962, 5588 people committed suicide in England and Wales, of which almost half (44%) did it in the same way as Sylvia, that is, by inhaling carbon monoxide. By 1977, when the carbon monoxide in English stoves was replaced with natural gas, the number of such suicides had fallen to zero, and the total number of suicides committed by young women had been halved. If carbon monoxide hadn’t been so readily available, would Sylvia Plath have killed herself in a different way?

When it comes to suicide, some psychologists believe that if a person decides to die, he will always find a way – not one, but another. This theory is called “substitution”. Other psychologists are sure that suicide is always associated with certain conditions and circumstances (“connectedness”). Gladwell is sure that suicides occur, as a rule, with the “connection” of a very depressive mood and an easily accessible means of suicide.

For example, more than 1,500 people are known to have committed suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. At the same time, out of 515 people who tried to jump off the bridge, but for some reason did not, only 25 subsequently tried to kill themselves in another way. That is, people did not just want to die but sought to do it on the Golden Gate Bridge. The theory of “connectedness” is evident. If the San Francisco municipal authorities had known about it and installed protective barriers and nets on the bridge not in 2018, but much earlier, they would have prevented many suicides. If Sylvia Plath had not had a carbon monoxide stove handy, it is likely that she would have survived.

Thus, trying to understand a stranger, we:

 we find ourselves in captivity inherent in our credulity;
 draw erroneous conclusions about the nature and motivation of strangers, relying on stereotyped impressions of behavior and mannerisms;
 We often ignore the circumstances in which it operates.

The Story of Sandra Bland

The tragic story of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, which thundered all over America in 2015, became a sad apotheosis of common mistakes when communicating with strangers. Sandra came to Texas from Chicago to start a new job at a university. A Texas police officer stopped her car in a quiet area of ​​a small town for not signaling her lights when changing lanes. Sandra’s nervousness and irritated tone (which is easy to explain, given that she had just changed her place of residence and work) seemed suspicious to the policeman. He decided that she was being like a potentially dangerous criminal and demanded that she get out of the car. Sandra showed even more irritation because of the illegal, in her opinion, actions of the policeman. The policeman forcibly pulled her out of the car, arrested them for resisting arrest, and was taken to the police station. Three days later, an innocent girl hanged herself in her cell. Sandra’s tragic death is the result of incorrect conclusions drawn by the policeman and his colleagues.

Today we communicate with strangers every day – and we believe that we can quickly and easily turn them into acquaintances and friends. This is a deep delusion.

First of all, we must recognize the limits of our ability to “decipher” strangers. We may never know the whole truth. There is no perfect way to recognize spies or financial scammers. In order to form a correct opinion about a stranger, you need to show attention, patience, humility, caution, and restraint. And if communication with a stranger leads to misunderstanding or trouble, we should not blame only the one whom we did not bother to get to know better.

Top 10 Thoughts

1. Constantly encountering strangers, we are sure that we can quickly understand them. But evolution hasn’t prepared us to deal with strangers. To understand another person, you need to show patience, attention, and caution.

2. A short personal meeting with a stranger can not only not help in understanding his behavior and motivation, but also lead to radically erroneous conclusions.

3. We are programmed to trust people and, as a result, we are able to communicate and coordinate effectively.

4. You can not judge the honesty of a person by his manner of speaking and holding on. A deceiver can look and act like an honest person, and vice versa.

5. Professional intelligence officers, statesmen, and police officers distinguish liars from honest people no better than housewives.

6. The state of alcoholic intoxication erases part of our personality and makes it impossible to correctly perceive strangers.

7. When analyzing other people’s motives and actions, one must take into account specific circumstances that could affect a person’s behavior.

8. Our ability to know someone else’s personality is limited. We may never know the whole truth.

9. Maintaining trust in people is essential for normal life to continue. But it is worth recognizing that our trust will be deceived from time to time.

10. Society should stop punishing people for showing trust. On the contrary, people who have become victims of deceit or betrayal should receive support.

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