Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw” and “David and Goliath.” He has been named one of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine. His latest book, “Talking to Strangers,” though secular in nature, has applications that are helpful to followers of Christ.
Why did you write “Talking to Strangers?”
Many of the people we interact with on a daily basis are strangers, not family, friends or acquaintances.
Gladwell said we are constantly thrown into contact with people whose assumptions, perspectives and backgrounds are different from our own.
“Over centuries and centuries, we grew up and lived in very close-knit communities where we knew everyone,” said Gladwell, who lives in New York. “All the sudden, in the last 25 to 30 years, we’ve switched to a situation where overwhelmingly we know no history. I grew up in a small town where every social encounter was with somebody I knew very well to a situation where the opposite is almost true.”
Throughout his book, Gladwell looks at examples in history—the Amanda Knox court case, Neville Chamberlain meeting Adolf Hitler, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, terrorist interrogations—and argues the deeper meaning behind these issues has to do with our inability to read people.
“I began to notice many of the high-profile controversies we were seeing in society were fundamentally about two people who didn’t know each other and were struggling to understand each other,” Gladwell added.
Gladwell said making sense of strangers doesn’t improve with your occupation. Even CIA interrogators, law-enforcement officers and judges have difficulty assessing a stranger’s character.
One study looked at 500,000 bail arraignment hearings in New York City. It compared the decisions of judges, who saw defendants face-to-face, to a computer, who only had ages and rap sheets. The computer’s picks were 25% less likely to commit a crime while out on bail.
“It’s so hard for us to acknowledge our weaknesses,” he said. “We think experience at this task makes us better. It makes us a little bit better, but not much. We’re dealing with a fundamental human problem, not something that can be overcome with experience.”
Why do we struggle to make sense of strangers?
Our brief interactions with cashiers, co-workers, servers, drivers, fellow shoppers, plumbers, people in the locker room, parents at the park, couples in a restaurant and even our neighbors remind us we know very little about the people around us, though we may act like we have them figured out.
Gladwell said strangers are not easy.
“It is funny how incredibly self-confident we are about strangers,” Gladwell said. “You think about the tradition of the job interview. I just did a job interview. We’re thinking of hiring someone at my audio company. The first time we ever met, he came and talked to me for 45 minutes. Then everyone asked me, ‘What did you think of him?’ There’s an expectation that I should be able to form a powerful, meaningful and accurate impression of someone in 45 minutes. The truth is, I can’t. I can see what he’s done, but I just think it’s impossible. But we have a weird cultural expectation that is how things should be.”
Gladwell gave a few reasons we struggle to make sense of strangers.
1. We default to truth: Our operating assumption is that the people we deal with are honest.
We are wired in such a way that we begin each encounter by believing the best about that person versus weighing the pros and cons before we trust them.
It requires a “trigger” to snap us out of truth-default mode, so we only stop believing a person is trustworthy when our doubts build until it’s apparent our initial assumption was wrong.
Gladwell said while this is an obstacle to making sense of strangers, human nature is a good thing.
“When we were growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money,” Gladwell said. “A distant relative borrowed a very significant sum of money from my father … It turns out it was fraud. One response my father could have had was to become paranoid and suspicious, but he had the opposite. My father’s reaction is to be generous to this day. He said, ‘That’s the price I pay for being a generous person,’ and you couldn’t talk him out of it. We need to accept the fact that if we are who we want to be, we will get deceived, and it’s fine because the benefits of being trusting far outweigh the consequences.”
2. We believe in transparency: The idea that people’s appearance and demeanor provide an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.
Strangers become blurrier when they’re “mismatched,” meaning they don’t look or act the same way they feel.
Gladwell said mismatched people are confusing and unpredictable.
“There are some people who very clearly and accurately represent their emotions,” Gladwell added. “When they’re happy, they smile. When they’re sad, they frown. When they’re excited, they jump up and down. Those people are very easy to read. There’s a very large percentage who are not like that and don’t represent emotion in a way we expect emotions to be represented. These people are called ‘mismatched,’ and this creates a huge problem for the rest of us. We have an expectation that everybody represents emotion in the same way, and that leads us to make a lot of mistakes.”
When a family member or friend is mismatched, it isn’t an issue because we know them well enough to know how they are feeling.
3. We discard context: The idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.
Gladwell said person and place are two sides of the same coin.
“Behavior is something that is a function of place, environment and community,” he said. “So, when you’re trying to understand a person, you must understand where that person is from and the particular circumstances in which you are operating.”
Can you talk about strangers and evangelism?
Gladwell was born in England, and when he was young, his family moved to a small, rural town in Ontario, Canada, with a strong Christian community. His mom is Jamaican and was the only black person in town.
“You would think, ‘Did your mom have difficulty being accepted by the community?’” Gladwell said. “Her answer would be, ‘No, I was welcomed with open arms because I was a woman of faith.’ When they looked at my mother, they didn’t see a foreigner or a black person, they saw a Christian. They didn’t see a stranger; they saw someone who was familiar. So what faith allows us to do is say, ‘I don’t know all of you, but I know the most important part of you. I know the values and beliefs that we share.’ My mom was a stranger who was not a stranger by virtue of her religious background.”
Gladwell said as society becomes increasingly secular, understanding strangers is more challenging.
“One of the reasons we are struggling with this problem now is the role of faith in ordinary interactions is diminishing,” Gladwell added. “The church doesn’t have the same central place in many people’s lives as it did in previous generations. If you stay in that same scenario with my mom … and she’s not a Christian and they’re not Christians, it’s harder. All they know is she looks different and talks different. Now you have an issue.”
How can we better interact with strangers?
The goal of Gladwell’s book is, in a sense, to help strangers better understand each other.
Gladwell said that people cannot transform strangers and must admit they will have some amount of error when reading them.
“A fundamental lesson of all of this is there is no easy fix,” Gladwell said. “When people make mistakes, don’t beat them up. Accept that this is a part of the human experience, and if we can be a little more forgiving of each other’s errors, then this is an easy problem for us to live with.”
Jesus said in Matthew 5:7, “‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’”
Gladwell echoes this truth by saying we need to side with grace in our exchanges with strangers.
“We need to change our expectations about what’s possible when it comes to knowing a stranger,” Gladwell added. “I talk about humility and patience … both of us need to acknowledge that our impressions of each other may not be accurate. Both of us need to acknowledge that we have met briefly, but that’s not enough. There’s a process of getting to know someone.”