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21 BOOKS FOR 2021: (3) Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a great writer and amazing storyteller and this book is no different.

I am an INTP in case you believe MBTI. I find it interesting but do agree that it is in a lot of respects, astrology for nerds. That said, I picked this book because as an INTP I need to work on my social skills and I thought Malcolm Gladwell would be a good guide – let this be a lesson on judging books by their titles, it has nothing to do with getting rid of your social anxiety or being a better person to be around – at least not directly.

It is about talking to Strangers when you read about it but in an indirect way.

The default to truth problem

In Jurisprudence, some realists opine that judges make decisions then look for reasons to justify themselves as opposed to what you would expect to happen – that a judge would listen to the facts, assess the evidence then make a decision. Malcolm calls this kind of situation a default to truth problem.

We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowing gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.

He provides examples of this through scandalous stories like how the Cubans penetrated the CIA at the highest of levels, how analysts pointed out Cuban spies and how the people who were in charge of the CIA at that point were unable to see through these spies because of their default to truth problem.

He states that people fed with more information do not necessarily have an advantage in making a better decision. Judges who are faced by accused persons make more errors than computers fed with data. This is part of the reason why I bought the book Noise.

The default to truth problem is an important element in talking to strangers because it is important, I think to learn to recognize Noise in the form of Stereotypes and first impression judgements, and Biases that affect our interaction with strangers.

Transparency Problem

Malcolm gives an example of the movie friends and the exaggerated expressions therein and critiques how we have come to look out for overt gestures of feeling. People’s expressions and their feelings are not always matched or in line with what we expect them to be.

Things are not what they seem to be much less human beings. He cites cross cultural studies and the case of Amanda Knox as instances where assumptions as to what people's behaviour or expressions are cannot be taken as conclusive proof of their feelings much less their guilt.

Someone I deeply cared about suffered from Pancreatic Cancer and if you judged how sick they were based (at certain points in time) on their expression, you would be forgiven for not believing how sick they were. I have looked worse having cramps. I knew they were suffering because I was close to them and could read them. However, as a stranger I would be terrible at sighting the pain signals as they were not overt.

This is the transparency problem – that we cannot judge or gauge strangers quite so easily yet we need to interact with them and make decisions based on those interactions.

Consider Circumstances and Conditions

The idea is that when analysing strangers, we need to take into account the circumstances and conditions. The story of Hernan Cortes and Aztec Ruler Montezuma II lends itself well. These were two perfect stangers with different cultures, histories and language among others. Their communication which had to go through numerous translators lost meaning in translation leading to the murder of Montezuma and the death of millions of Aztecs. Montezuma’s words if interpreted by word meant the exact opposite of what he intended to communicate and without being considered in context, it was completely miscommunicated. If you read my post “when we ignore cultures, planes crush on mountains” you can see other instances of culture influnces communication in a way that can lead to deadly results.

Essentially, we use these three faulty strategies in assessing or communicating with starngers that fail and is a call to reassess our judgement of and interactions with strangers in light of the same.

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