How good are you in dealing with strangers?

Please do yourself a favour and read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers, whose subtitle is What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know. It is deeply thought-provoking on every single page, now making us imagine we judge strangers too kindly, now too harshly. Either way, so engagingly, Gladwell shows us how common the misreading of strangers is.

“Today,” writes Gladwell, we are “thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own.” So chapter by chapter he offers us examples of what he calls “the stranger problem”.

One of the most dramatic and consequential of these is the meetings between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in September 1938, as Hitler was threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain desperately wanted to avoid the outbreak of a world war, and when the two leaders met it turns out that Chamberlain simply fell under the German Fuhrer’s spell. He was outmanoeuvred at the bargaining table, grossly underestimating Hitler’s intentions.

Interestingly others, including Churchill, who knew far less about Hitler and had never met him, were the ones who judged him correctly.
In the same chapter, Gladwell tells us about the experienced and thoughtful New York judges whose job was to decide which of the defendants before them should be allowed bail. Their challenge – like Chamberlain’s – was to assess the character of a stranger… a nerve-wracking one indeed.

So with all their skills, how well did they do? Better than Chamberlain? To assess their judgements, a study was carried out comparing their verdicts with those of an artificial intelligence system that was fed with the same information as had been given to them, and instructed to make a parallel list of who should be released on bail. .

The study then analysed whose list committed the fewest crimes while out on bail, and found that those assessed by the IT system were 25 percent less likely to do so while awaiting trial than the 400,000 released by the judges. AI possessed only a fraction of the information available to the human intelligence, yet made superior assessments.

Gladwell is as confused as we are, as people struggle with their first impressions of a stranger – struggle even when they have had months to understand them. They struggle to assess their honesty, their character, their intent. So why would we do any better? It’s just not easy!

One explanation he offers is our tendency to “default to the truth”. It turns out we aren’t good at identifying who is telling the truth, being particularly bad at figuring out who is not. Why? Because we assume that the people we are dealing with are indeed honest.

We start by believing, says Gladwell, and “only stop doing so when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away”. The problem arises because many of those who deceive us are expert at doing so (with Bernie Madoff, the great fraudster, occupying a whole chapter in the book). Meanwhile others who are indeed being truthful may, through showing signs of anxiety, make us believe they are dissembling when they actually have nothing to hide.

In this our modern world we have no choice but to engage with strangers. Yet, confirms Gladwell, we are “inept”. “We think we can transform the stranger… into the familiar and the known,” he scoffs, “and we can’t.”

So? So we must accept the limits of our ability, and show humility and restraint. Including, as the last sentence in the book warns, avoid blaming the stranger when things go wrong.

Here in Kenya we are a relatively low trust society, leading to a tendency to default against the truth, to imagine that no stranger is to be believed.

But let us pay heed to Gladwell’s words of caution. Let us be neither too naïve nor too cynical. Yet let the fear of misjudging others not deter us from engaging with strangers, from wherever they may be, whatever their age or gender, their occupation or level of education. Accept, however, that we will often judge them wrongly.

BBI report goes beyond the usual divisive politics

The media are filled with coverage of matters BBI – for and against; Raila and Ruto; waste of money and money well-spent. We’ve all been advised to read the entire 156-page document, but given what has been highlighted I was far from tempted to do the responsible thing.

Then a few days ago, one of the papers featured a brief yet more holistic review of what was in the report, including mention of visions and values, and this led me to download it. What a delightful surprise! From the exhaustive way the media covered the launch and everything since, I had until then been led to assume that it was only about prime ministers and Parliaments, referendums and Raila-Ruto: just new sources of conflict and division, mere feeding ground for juicy headlines.

Immediately I started reading I saw the report was about so much more than the political options that face us – none of which, by the way, will sort out our problems, any more than our new constitution or our endless number of commissions have done. No. It is all, as the BBI report makes abundantly clear, about visions and values, about the need for national conversations at all levels of society, with as much listening as talking, ones that will develop a “national ethos.”

The report is written in a way that everyone can follow. It is clear and engaging, and it flows really well, from identification of our challenges to how we have handled them before to what we should do now. Each of the nine core challenges occupies a chapter: lack of a national ethos, responsibilities and rights, ethnic antagonism and competition, divisive elections, inclusivity, shared prosperity, corruption, devolution, and safety and security.

In them we read blunt feedback on what the BBI members heard from Kenyans, before they lay out their recommendations. They draw attention to the fact that the nine themes are all interlinked, and explain that the reason they list their recommendations at the end of each chapter (as well as laying them out comprehensively together in a clear matrix in an appendix that occupies 26 of the pages) is that they want us to focus separately on each one as well as viewing them all together. Plus they hope we won’t just pluck out the politically exciting ones and ignore the rest. They exhort us to “think big and long” – way beyond our Vision 2030 horizon to 50 and even 100 years from now. They realistically suggest holding on to our 47 counties – while encouraging the development of regional blocs and also further decentralisation to the ward level. And they write at length about how to breathe life into our values and behaviour, urging us to pay attention to our responsibilities along with our rights, and so we can build trust and respect among us rather than relentlessly opposing each other as we play our zero-sum games.

We read about our “leadership crisis”, with too much preaching water and drinking wine, and with too little follow-through on good intentions. I was particularly delighted to see them recommend the elimination of all sitting allowances.

The bridge-builders acknowledge previous efforts to bring us together around the much-needed national ethos, from the harambee spirit onward, and the opening statement in the report’s Conclusion chapter, “Kenya is at a crossroads,” reminded me of the Kenya Scenario Planning initiative that was named “Kenya at the Crossroads”. I was a trustee of that wonderful initiative, where we branded our optimistic scenario “Flying Geese”, reflecting the aligned energy it represented.

In the two decades since we laid out the characteristics of that Kenya at its best, we are far from seeing the necessary mix of political, economic and social developments that can take us there. But the BBI team (like me) remains optimistic about our unlimited potential to forge ahead and show the way for the rest of Africa. As they readily acknowledge, we definitely possess the needed talent and energy to achieve that shared prosperity.

I’d love to write much more. But in the space available I’ll just conclude by strongly advising you to read the report. You won’t regret it.