A State Police Trooper talks with a driver after pulling him over for speeding

Traffic stops can become dangerous when strangers misunderstand each other.Credit: Gabe Souza/Getty

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know Malcolm Gladwell Little, Brown (2019)

People, like books, can be difficult to read. Assumed ‘universal’ grammars of demeanour and facial expression seem not to translate across all cultures. Even within communities, there are individuals who react differently — who might, for instance, look most honest when they are not.

Talking to Strangers, Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, is a rich, detailed study of the mutual misunderstanding and violations of trust that can occur when we lack the tools to make sense of strangers. As in The Tipping Point (2000) and other books, he tests his thesis with topical case studies in areas from diplomacy to espionage, summoning evidence from psychologists, anthropologists, criminologists and economists.

The core of Talking to Strangers is an exploration of relatively new thinking about human interaction. For instance, the psychologist Tim Levine proposes that because liars are relatively rare, it’s simplest for people to believe each other. Gladwell examines Charles Darwin’s proposition that facial expressions — such as those signalling fear, disgust, hate — are evolutionary signals with universal significance. Psychologist Jennifer Fugate has pinpointed 43 facial-muscle movements that signal emotion. Deciphering them, however, is not always straightforward.

“To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society,” Gladwell writes. But we often fail to read others correctly. Gladwell demonstrates how this can lead to catastrophe.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet Adolf Hitler, who was threatening war in Europe. Chamberlain’s aim was to exact from Hitler a promise of ‘peace for our time’. Later, Chamberlain wrote to his sister: “I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” In Gladwell’s thesis, meeting Hitler face to face was Chamberlain’s first mistake: “The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew the least about him personally.” In 1939, the Second World War began.

Chamberlain seemed to see in Hitler what he wanted to see. And as Gladwell points out, “the same puzzling pattern crops up everywhere”.

It is evident in a tragedy the book turns to repeatedly. In 2015, in Prairie View, Texas, state trooper Brian Encinia stopped driver Sandra Bland, an African American woman, for what may or may not have been a petty traffic offence. There was no suggestion of any crime. In a transcript of the encounter, she admits to being irritated. Gladwell concludes that her manner fitted Encinia’s idea of how a potential criminal might behave. Emotions escalated. An argument about a cigarette ended with a drawn taser, and a forcible arrest.

Bland was charged with felony assault. Three days later, she was found hanged in a police cell. Encinia was fired for violating the Texas state trooper manual, and ultimately forbidden from working in law enforcement. “Prejudice and incompetence go a long way toward explaining social dysfunction in the United States,” writes Gladwell, with considerable understatement.

The courts, he shows, are rife with misjudgements sparked by close encounters. A study by economist Sendhil Mullainathan and his colleagues looked at 554,689 bail hearings conducted by judges in New York City between 2008 and 2013. Of the more than 400,000 people released, over 40% either failed to appear at their subsequent trials, or were arrested for another crime. Mullainathan applied a machine-learning program to the raw data available to the judges; indifferent to the gaze of the accused, the computer made decisions on whom to detain or release that would have resulted in 25% fewer crimes (J. Kleinberg et al. Q. J. Econ. 133, 237–293; 2018).

Even intelligence agencies can be hotbeds of gullibility and bias, Gladwell reveals in two true spy stories. In 1987, Cuban-born Florentino Aspillaga defected from a posting in Eastern Europe, walking into the US embassy in Vienna. He delivered a bombshell, claiming that almost the entire roster of CIA spies in Cuba were double agents working for Havana. It was true: they had video-recorded the US agency’s activities for a decade.

Even on home soil, agents have missed evidence. In 1996, an operative in the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) — Ana Belén Montes, known as “the Queen of Cuba” for her specialist knowledge — was suspected of being a double agent. A counter-intelligence officer, reviewing her file, decided that she had passed the test: “This woman is gonna be the next Director of Intelligence for DIA. She’s just fabulous.” She was arrested in 2001.

She was not even a particularly accomplished spy, Gladwell notes. Her secret codes from Havana were in her purse, her shortwave radio in a shoebox in her cupboard. “The issue with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them,” Gladwell writes. “It is that there is something wrong with us.” Further crisply told case studies amplify his argument, from a bleak account of ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques used to extract dubious confessions from al‑Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to readings of coded facial expression in the US television series Friends.

In addition, Gladwell discusses a bias towards default-to-truth. This is beautifully explicated in the case of the more than US$50-billion fraud by financier Bernard Madoff, made public in 2008. (Madoff is currently serving a 150-year sentence.) People repressed suspicions about the schemer because they trusted the regulatory system. Few believed fund manager Harry Markopolos, who identified the fraud around 2000 and repeatedly reported it to the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, as Gladwell points out, if we had too low a trust threshold, we’d never commit to anything and would forever be suspicious. But that is just part of Gladwell’s story.

He explores, for instance, the sociological concept of coupling: how aspects of place can affect the outcome of close encounters and related decisions. A 1988 study, for instance, showed how the removal of carbon monoxide from the public gas supply in England and Wales led to a steep decline in the number of people taking their own lives between 1963 and 1975 (R. V. Clarke and P. Mayhew Crime Justice 10, 79–116; 1988). And US criminologists have found that for better overall crime prevention, police patrols should focus on urban crime hotspots (D. Weisburd Criminol. Public Policy 17, 5–25; 2018).

These findings, Gladwell asserts, have relevance for the tragic outcome of the incident in Texas. He does note that African American drivers are more likely to be stopped than white ones. But he persuades us to reconsider the episode as a misunderstanding between an over-zealous traffic cop in the wrong place and a motorist who should never have been stopped. It remains hard, however, to imagine that it would have ended so badly had Bland been white. Ultimately, Gladwell delivers analysis, but not much in the way of answers.

In close encounters with those we don’t know, Gladwell recommends “restraint and humility”. His examples of what happens without that have immediate and obvious political resonance. Perhaps wisely, he declines to make the connection. “Those occasions when our trusting nature is violated are tragic,” Gladwell writes. “But the alternative — to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception — is worse.”