Review: Vivien Horler
Talking to Strangers – What we should know about the people we don’t know, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin Books)
Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling, interesting and insightful writer credited with developing the 10 000 hours theory of success: anyone can be an “overnight” winner when they’ve put in the hard work, usually around 10 000 hours of it.
Until Talking to Strangers, I’d read two of his books, The Tipping Point and Outliers, both of which I found fascinating. Actually Talking to Strangers is interesting too, full of striking anecdotes about how strangers tend to misunderstand each other, often with fatal consequences.
A story familiar to most of us is that of the meetings between Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in Germany a year or so before the outbreak of World War 2. Hitler was being increasingly bellicose and, amid fears of war, Chamberlain went to see him to judge whether he was going to be satisfied with annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, or whether he had wider territorial ambitions.
Hitler reassured Chamberlain, who returned to Britain waving a piece of paper that he said guaranteed “peace in our time”. We all know how that turned out.
The question is: how could Chamberlain have so misread Hitler? It would seem we all do it, all the time. So Gladwell asks: why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?
There are a number of reasons for this: one is that we seem to be wired to believe what strangers – or anyone actually – tell us, or what Gladwell refers to as “the default to truth”. Occasionally we’ll have doubts about someone, but usually not enough to trigger any action.
He describes the case of a woman, Ana Montes, who was a Cuban expert with the US’s Defence Intelligence Agency. She was, it turned out, also a spy for Cuba, and Fidel Castro himself had given her a medal. Occasionally some of her US colleagues felt uneasy about her, but it was years before she was exposed.
Gladwell writes our lie detector is mostly set to “off” and that in general, this is good for society. “We need a trigger to snap out of the default to truth, but the threshold for triggers is high.”
There are other problems when it comes to believing people. In the movies, actors tend to exaggerate their facial expressions to convey a message, but in real life facial expressions are generally not a good guide to how a person is feeling – expressions are not transparent.
This can affect how accused people in the dock are seen. In countries with the jury system, a person accused of a serious crime can turn the jury against them if they don’t appear remorseful or contrite. And Gladwell cites evidence that even judges, whom one would expect to have developed a keen eye and ear for truth, are frequently wrong.
In illustrating his points, Gladwell’s case studies include Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi scheme manipulator; the suicide of Sylvia Plath; the effects of drunkenness on our ability to judge someone; and the theory that torture can produce truth.
My problem with this book is not its readability – it is generally fascinating. But having piled up the evidence that it is hard to know when strangers are lying, he doesn’t give us a sure-fire method of detecting a lie. Perhaps because there isn’t one.
As he says, truth is not a shiny object that can be extracted if only we dig deep enough. The truth of strangers isn’t like that. We will usually not discover the whole truth and may have to accept a partial version of events.
And he adds: “The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
Well yes. But after all his research, his interviews and reading and the evidence of his case studies, couldn’t he have come up with something a bit more foolproof?