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.