Talking to Strangers
Before the half term break I said I was looking forward to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book ‘Talking to Strangers’, so I am delighted to offer an update that it turned out to be just as interesting as I hoped it would be. Gladwell writes so well that you can fly through the pages without needing to stop to check your understanding. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of book I could recommend to younger pupils because it focuses on some challenging themes and case studies, but I would certainly recommend it to older ones, parents and colleagues as a fascinating study of the human condition, and in particular our abject failure to deal appropriately with strangers.
Starting with the case of Sandra Bland, who was stopped by an overzealous policeman in July 2015 and who hanged herself with a plastic bag three days after her arrest, Gladwell uses a host of grim examples to illustrate his points. One of the more famous is that of Amanda Knox, the American student who spent four years in prison for a crime in which she was not involved, essentially because she was odd and did not behave as societal norms expected. I was reminded of the documentary ‘The Nazis: A Warning from History’, in which the programme makers highlighted cases where similarly unusual people were denounced by their neighbours to the Gestapo, often ending up in the death camps for no reason other than that people did not like them. The execution of witches in the Middle Ages followed a similar thread of misjudgements, malice and fatal consequences.
Gladwell used the meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler as an example of how poor we are as a species at detecting lies being told to us. We think we can look people in the eye and gauge their intentions, but we can’t. Apparently, judges granting bail applications make the wrong decision in half the cases in front of them. Computers using algorithms have been proved to be much more effective, but we just cannot get past our own self-confidence and our certainty that if we see the cut of a man’s jib then we will judge him correctly.
The hazards of excessive drinking in a university environment was a particularly alarming chapter, with issues of consent between men and women increasingly difficult to decide because too often no one can remember what actually happened. The case study to illustrate the point from Stanford University was a thoroughly depressing read, with the dreadful outcomes seemingly so obvious with the benefit of hindsight and, of course, sobriety.
Equally cheerless was the statistic that, since it opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge has been the site of more than 1,500 suicides, more than any other man-made location in the world. The authorities spent millions of dollars building a traffic barrier to protect cyclists crossing the bridge, even though no cyclist has ever been killed by a motorist there. A net was put up to protect construction workers when the bridge was being built, which saved nineteen lives, but it was taken down when the construction was complete. It was finally reinstalled only last year because it was assumed in the intervening period that would-be suicides would just go somewhere else if their attempts were thwarted at the bridge. In fact, the empirical evidence shows quite the reverse, with only about 5% of people going on to end their own lives in a different location.
I was left fascinated, absorbed and horrified in equal measure by this excellent book. I joke sometimes when I see people doing what I would judge to be irritating or stupid things, usually in Sainsbury’s on a Saturday morning when I am in a hurry, that it really is a miracle that our species has survived so long, managing to discover the wheel and go the Moon into the bargain – that is, if it wasn’t all faked in a studio, of course.
I would therefore strongly recommend ‘Talking to Strangers’, but with a clear warning that you may not be left feeling uplifted and inspired by your fellow human beings as a result. Still, at least we’ve got the General Election to cheer us up!