Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About Talking to People We Don’t Know

Review by Bill Murphy

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers; What We Should Know About Talking to People We Don’t Know, Little, Brown and Company, 2019 

In 2016, in small town Texas, Officer Brian Encinia pulled over a young black woman, Sandra Bland, for a minor traffic infraction. The interaction becomes heated and Sandra is incarcerated. Three days later, she is dead in her jail-cell.

Malcolm Gladwell examines this case in light of ways we commonly mis-interpret strangers. “[We] are struggling to understand each other through multiple layers of translators. Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at the act of translation.” Can we do better than settle for simplistic conclusions of racism or blaming the victim? Can our response be more robust than ‘We will try to do better next time.’ Gladwell introduces the Sandra Bland affair at the start of Talking to Strangers. He returns to the investigation at the end of the book, to address these questions.

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian writer whose books often examine research in the fields of social science and psychology. In Talking to Strangers Gladwell considers assumptions we tend to make about people that we do not know and the consequences these assumptions have when we interpret events and social behavior.

He describes a number of high-profile cases related to spying, lie-detection, foreign affairs, interrogation, suicide, criminal behavior and policing. Gladwell considers the cases in light of research. The conclusions can be surprising, complex and at odds with colloquial wisdom.

Research contends that our ability to read peoples’ intentions is more unreliable than we assume, even for professionals like law enforcement officers. The Truth-Default Theory of psychologist Tim Levine proposes a strong natural bias to believe the ‘normal’ explanation of an event. These two mistakes we make with strangers can become a crisis “when we do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.”

The concept of context may be particularly relevant to end-of-life issues. Gladwell does an extensive review of the dynamics of suicide. The concept of ‘coupling’ is informative with regard to MAID. (Medical Assistance in Dying)

It is often assumed that if a person is suicidal, they will find some way to end their life. However, research by Ronald Clarke in 1988 suggests that suicide is commonly ‘coupled’ with a method of suicide. Suicide is more than the act of depressed people. “It’s the act of depressed people at a particular moment of extreme vulnerability and in combination with a particular, readily available lethal means.” 

Suicide follows vulnerability and availability. Gladwell reviews the example of suicide by gas as the common method of choice in Britain before 1960s. In a ten-year period, as a wholesale transition was made from 'town gas' to the less lethal 'natural gas' in Britain, the suicide rate plunged, with no corresponding up-take of other methods of suicide.

The context of vulnerability and lethal means is further supported in a study by Richard Seiden in 1978. He followed up on 515 people who had tried to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge but had been restrained. Only 25 of the 515 went on to die by suicide in some other way.

For EPC readers, Talking to Strangers offers insights and evidenced-based dynamics around the issues of suicide (and euthanasia). The average coffee-house debate of end-of-life issues (and criminal events) can be simplistic to the point of outright misunderstanding. Neither does his research exempt professionals from being victims of common false assumptions and mis-conceptions. The book fairly screams ‘caution’ when assessing requests for euthanasia. To accept such requests at face-value defies professional and scientific responsibility.

When considering a MAID request, consideration of the client's context is necessary, in addition to the expressed request by the client. The author made an interesting comment about coupling of the act of suicide with the method of suicide of American poet, Anne Sexton. Gladwell opines “Don’t look at the stranger and jump to conclusions. Look at the stranger's world."

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