As a journalist, it’s part of my job to have honest conversations with people I very often don’t know in order to help myself and others better understand the world. So I was really interested in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers, which uses a series of case studies to show how we so often misread strangers and the real problems that that can cause. Read our conversation below and learn about what we so often get wrong when we meet someone new…
Katie Couric: It’s been six years since your last book, congratulations! I know you commit an enormous amount of time researching and studying the topics you write about. How do you know when you’ve finally found the one that you want to devote an entire book to?
Malcolm Gladwell: Well, I’m mildly obsessive. And I tend to be obsessing about one thing or another at all times. (Like, at the moment, I’ve spent the entire day mulling over why Serena Williams lost the U.S. Open final). But sometimes I find myself obsessing over the same thing for weeks on end. That’s usually a sign that a topic is rich enough to be worth doing a podcast episode — or writing a book about.
The book opens with the heartbreaking case of Sandra Bland. Why do you say that it’s “the perfect example” of what you wanted to explore? Why do you think it affected you so deeply?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s unlike most of the other highly publicized cases of encounters between young African Americans and law enforcement, the officer’s dash-cam captured the whole episode. We know every word that was spoken between Bland and the police officer, Brian Encinia. There is no “he said, she said” in this case. And that meant that there is no way to re-interpret or explain away the awfulness and tragedy of their meeting. That tape became one of my obsessions. And after watching it half a dozen times, I thought — I should write a book about this.
A major idea in the book is our tendency to“default to truth” when we meet strangers. Can you tell us what this means exactly and how it can end up causing some real problems?
One of the big questions that psychologists have been wrestling with for decades is why human beings are so bad at detecting lies. We’re terrible at it. And the psychologist Tim Levine argues that that’s because as humans we “default to truth.” That is: we automatically assume that anyone we speak to is telling the truth, and it takes a mountain of evidence of doubt for us to change our minds. Levine makes the case that this is part of what is special and beautiful about us: default to truth is what allows us to form groups, cooperate, start businesses, and communicate with others and put our children on the school bus every morning without interrogating the bus driver about this qualifications and motives. But it also means that when someone really wants to deceive us, we’re really easily duped. He says — and I agree — that that is a small price to pay for the many advantages of implicit truth in others. But it does mean being human necessarily leaves us open to deception.
Talking to Strangers is a series of case studies of cases in the news that I think make this point explicitly. Why did Bernie Madoff fool so many people for so long? How did the pedophile Larry Nasser get away with abusing so many girls in his care for so long? That’s not because people in positions of authority were negligent. It’s because human beings are by definition vulnerable to those determined to mislead them.
We’re both journalists, so our jobs require that we spend a lot of time talking to strangers and, hopefully, getting them to open up to us truthfully. How do you think your work on the book has affected the way you engage with your subjects?
One of the things that I spend a lot of time on in Talking to Strangers is how we rush to judgement about strangers — we rely on very flawed clues, like facial expressions or body language. And we systematically underestimate the importance of context in making sense of another’s behavior. This has made me way, way more cautious as a journalist. I think the only way for a journalist to honestly profile someone, for example, is if writers limit themselves to painting very specific narrow pictures of their subjects. You can spend a few hours with Brad Pitt and talk about the way he is with you — and you can watch his movies and talk about the way he is on the screen — but you can’t begin to know him. Sadly I think too few of us exercise that kind of caution.
With everything you’ve learned, what’s your best advice for all of us to have better and more honest interactions with strangers?
Be humble. Be cautious. Don’t imagine that you can get to the heart of someone else from a single encounter. Human beings are much more complex than that.
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