Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

2020, book 21: “Truth default: You believe someone not because you don’t have doubt but because you don’t have ENOUGH doubt.” — Malcolm Gladwell

Finished on March 31, 2020

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best authors that I’ve spent time studying. He’s always on point with the data and spends extensive time diving into the deeper meanings of the subjects that are studied. I’ve worked through a handful of his other books so when I saw that this one was released I knew I had to add it to the list.

I’m actually studying something similar about human behavior and conflict within Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order. The chapter I recently completed was about chimpanzees and humans and the ways that they approach conflict and gaining territory.

Throughout the majority of history, encounters — hostile or otherwise — were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings, and organized their cities in the same way you did. The 16th century’s bloodiest conflict, when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in 1519, they knew nothing about the Aztecs. The Spanish were in awe. The cities were architecturally incredible and the city was incredibly clean in comparison to European cities.

Uniquely valuable. How often do we think that the information we obtain from a personal interaction is unique? I think it’s pretty common — probably more common than we’d like to admit.

In our efforts to make sense of strangers, we all follow the same assumptions. We believe that information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable. We do this when we personally interview people before we hire them or sit down with a babysitter before we hire them.

Interesting. Understandable. I think that this is also something that people do so often that they don’t even think about. Why do we believe people? When people are walking around a store picking up a handful of items and putting them back, we don’t often think something is suspicious. But when they start putting things in their pockets… then that might be enough doubt to stop believing someone is just a customer.

Truth default: You believe someone not because you don’t have doubt but because you don’t have ENOUGH doubt.

Well said and anyone who interacts with other people for a living can confirm this. It’s tough to truly get a feel on someone, to truly communicate what we need to, and to truly garner alignment. We always need to talk to strangers, they have everything that we need.

We need certain processes to be human but the means we must filtrate an enormous amount of error. That’s the paradox of talking to strangers — we need to talk to them but we’re terrible at it.

I don’t recall exactly why this following point stood out to me but it certainly is interesting. We need to understand when someone should be upset or frustrated or excited and if they’re not, that might give us pause.

With strangers, we need to be intolerable to stranger’s emotions that fall outside our expectations.

A greater understanding of how alcohol impacts us was very valuable to understand. It’s not surprising when we think about how drunk driving accidents occur. It’s a well-known fact that reaction time increases and slows when people are intoxicated, people can solely be focused on one thing.

When you’re drunk, your understanding of your true self changes. Alcohol is now looked at as a type of myopia. Your vision is narrowed to only what is in your immediate focus.

Is this surprising? Unfortunately, it wasn’t to me. People drink more and people drink more often now than they did in the past. Why has this changed over time? There are many reasons of course, but Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes two things. Today people say that 4 or 5 drinks is “just getting started” which in the grand scheme of things — is absurd. Now, I used to drink and would say the same thing, all my friends would.

In the late 1940s, a survey of 27 colleges was done to further understand drinking habits of college students. Students were asked for much they drank on average at a sitting. The drinking amounts were divided into three groups:

Smaller — 2 glasses of wine, 2 beers, or 2 mixed drinks

Medium — 3–5 glasses of wine, beers, or mixed drinks

Larger — anything above that.

Very few answered larger back then, especially women.

2 things have changed since then:

1. Heavy drinkers or today drink far more than 60 years ago. Students today say that 4 or 5 drinks is just getting started. Today, alcohol researchers report that the heavy binge drinking category regularly includes people who have had 20 drinks in a sitting. Blackouts once rare have become common.
2. The consumption gap between men and women has narrowed considerably.

This is the MOST important takeaway for me. We NEED to accept that we will never understand 100% of anyone. Think about it — we don’t even know about 100% of ourselves!

Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes that what we want to learn about strangers is fragile. We need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never understand 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.

An incredibly important point to understand. People don’t often focus on these items at a deep level, why not? Because even while obvious in hindsight, we might not understand the impact of coupling right away. When we make decisions it’s imperative that we seek the true motives. As with the Golden Gate Bridge, if there was a net, would the number of people who jump be decreased? Probably — and after a net was installed, that was evident.

Coupling: in the middle of the 20th century, a number of people in England committed suicide by turning on the gas in the oven. When homes and buildings upgraded so that there was no longer any deadly carbon monoxide, suicides decreased dramatically. The leading suicide method in the US is handgun. What if we removed handguns or installed a net below the Golden Gate Bridge (the most common location for suicides). Eventually after 80 years, a net was installed. The net has been shown to decrease the number of people who jump — their decision to jump was coupled to the bridge. That disproves the common misunderstanding that if people want to milk themselves, they will find another way. That simply isn’t true, most decisions are coupled to the situation.

Ann Sexton likely wouldn’t have taken her life if the situation was not the way it was. It was coupled to the situation, she was said to “always be ready to take her own life.” In the same way, prostitutes when asked if they would consider moving and they said no because of the schools for their children and they knew who wouldn’t call the police on them, etc. that’s coupling.

This was a book that I learned a ton from and really enjoyed working through. I learned a lot and human behavior is always a subject that I particularly enjoy studying. It’s quite apparent that we all act differently in various situations and identifying some of the underlying reasons is valuable beyond compare. Looking at today, why did you do the things that you did?

I gave this book a 3.5/5

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