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On Strangers

How well do we interpret the actions of those we do not know?

Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker’s highly influential polymath, has turned his attention away from tipping points and blinking to how we handle other people in his latest book Talking to Strangers (Penguin 2019).


We over-estimate our ability to read strangers, their feelings, motives and intentions. Though we have little knowledge of them, we tell ourselves and others that we have their measure. We big ourselves up by defining others. But according to Gladwell, there are three things we discount.


The first is known as the truth default. We assume people are telling us the truth because we think they are basically honest. It might feel, in the current climate, that no-one believes what anyone else is saying, but the reality is different. For society to function well, trust has to be conferred on others. It gets things done and makes for a happier community. The risks are obvious, and Gladwell details them, not least in the area of child abuse, where huge, life-destroying mistakes have been made by sustaining trust in some people, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Just because someone we know only a bit looks plausible does not make them so. Trusting societies are great places to live, until they aren’t.


The second thing we stumble over is described as transparency. We assume that how people behave is an accurate insight into who they are deep down. Gladwell cites the intriguing story of Amanda Knox, who was found guilty of murdering Meredith Kercher until the conviction was eventually overturned by an Italian court. Knox was an awkward, goofy young woman who conducted herself in inappropriate ways for someone at the heart of a murder case. Many people, the first court included, thought this was evidence of guilt. A lot of people still do, but the evidence clearly points to Kercher being murdered by Rudy Guede.


People over-value their capacity to call people out for who they are on the basis of how they act. It’s a funny tendency, given how many people say, when complimented: if only they knew the real me.


The third and final way in which we judge strangers wrongly is by coupling. Gladwell studies the act of suicide and shows how people are not destined to take their own lives just because they feel like doing so at a particular moment. Analysing the lives of those who tried to kill themselves by jumping from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Gladwell reveals that of 515 people who tried to jump between 1937 and 1951 but were prevented from doing so, only 25 went on to take their lives at another time.


Context is critical in understanding the stranger. How they act in one place does not determine how they will behave in another. To get a grasp of someone, we should know them and the environment in which they are operating, because the latter is profoundly influential over the former.


In a way, Malcolm Gladwell’s narrative only goes to show how our conception of others has been shaped by the heritage of individualism. We imagine our lives as self-shaped, noble and consistent. We discount environment, temptation and fallibility as factors in our make-up. The rugged individual made the west – especially the States – and we can reliably judge others on this myth.


We need greater humility in our reading of other people. Every person is complex, for they have been ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14). Jesus’ exhortation not to judge others is wilfully and persistently abused by his followers. We make countless snap, frequently critical, judgments of others and stand by them, because we would rather others thought us perfectly perceptive than revise an estimate of someone made on little evidence. We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. This means we usually have a higher opinion of ourselves than we do of others.


In an era of ‘othering’, where the stranger is quickly categorised, boxed up and dispatched by our judgment and public policy is under pressure to do the same, Talking to Strangers is a valuable resource. Not all may agree with his methodology or conclusions, but Malcolm Gladwell has put his finger once again on a topic of vital social importance. In a neat pre-summary of his thesis, the writer to the Hebrews might have the last word:


Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (13:2).


Now there’s an epic misjudgement to make Gladwell’s case.



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