Remember that episode of “Friends” when Ross (David Schwimmer) discovers that his best friend, Chandler (Matthew Perry), is in a romantic relationship with Ross’ sister, Monica (Courteney Cox)?
Sure you do. The moment of confrontation between the characters is played for laughs, but for author Malcolm Gladwell, who will appear at Benaroya Hall on Sept. 23 for Seattle Arts & Lectures, that scene, he writes in his powerful new book, “Talking to Strangers,” is all about faces.
Using a coding system developed by a research psychologist, Gladwell studies the actors’ shifting facial expressions: rage, fear, sadness, sincerity, joy. The brief scene looms large in “Talking to Strangers,” because while the “Friends” cast is excellent at conveying thoughts and feelings, the transparent frankness of Ross, Monica and Chandler’s inner experiences bears little resemblance to the real world.
In reality, Gladwell says, such human transparency is not the norm. Yet the vast majority of us believe it is. Gladwell calls this phenomenon a “default to [an assumption of] truth,” meaning we think we know or can read other people’s intentions, good or bad. But we are often very wrong. Mismatches between an individual’s presentation and his or her true motivation or intention are common, he writes, and can have a profound impact on presumptions of guilt or innocence.
“I was taken by theories about why deception happens in the way humans communicate,” said Gladwell by phone. “I began to realize there are numerous versions of this problem, this kind of ‘stranger problem’ in contemporary life. Examples can profoundly differ, but they are the same kind of problem, which is people failing to see through a stranger, or people failing to understand each other as strangers.”
The word “stranger” has different meanings for Gladwell. At times he’s referring to a literal stranger, at others to someone we’re certain has our backs despite our nagging doubts and contrary evidence.
Defaulting to truth can lead to trouble. Gladwell, through his usual barrage of short, clear sentences that read like conversation over coffee, dissects a number of historical scandals on the strangers theme, including a CIA discovery of double agents; financier Bernie Madoff defrauding clients; and the murder conviction in Italy of Seattle resident Amanda Knox, despite a scarcity of evidence (she was acquitted after almost four years in prison). The initial catalyst and framing device for the book was the suicide of 28-year-old Sandra Bland.
Bland, an African American woman arrested in 2015 when an officer needlessly escalated a questionable traffic stop after she lit a cigarette, was found hanged in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas.
“I couldn’t get past the dashcam video,” says Gladwell. “There are tons of these kinds of encounters between cops and civilians. But rarely do we have the whole conversation captured like that. It’s just so heartbreaking and infuriating and senseless. There was something about it I couldn’t get out of my head. On some level the whole thing is absurd. A police officer pulling someone over in the middle of the day in a university town, and then getting upset because she won’t put out her cigarette. Then she’s dead three days later. It doesn’t make any sense. It was my emotional reaction to that case that got me interested in the theme of this book.”
Before readers throw their hands up in despair over our fallibility, be assured Gladwell maintains there is a good reason we default to truth. If we didn’t, little would get done because we would all be skeptical of each other all the time.
“We have to accept our vulnerability on this front. We have to accept, for instance, that if you are in the world of finance, there is always going to be a Madoff. There is no way around this fundamental problem because it is baked into our trusting nature for a good reason. The best we can do is find better ways to live with it. Not fight it, but account for it.”
“Talking to Strangers” is Gladwell’s sixth book, the latest in a string of monster bestsellers including “Blink,” “Outliers” and “David and Goliath.” A former reporter for The Washington Post and a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, Gladwell, 56, casts a wide net to support his theses, whether explaining the distinct advantage of the birth date of Bill Gates; the image-driven election of President Warren G. Harding; or the modern history of England’s occupation of Northern Ireland.
Gladwell is often criticized for appearing to cherry-pick his sources. That’s a fair point, but his job isn’t weighing competing data; it’s making arguments about particular ways to look at what it means to be human.
“I see ideas as opportunities for adventure,” he said. “‘Let’s look at things this way and see what happens’ ought to be the subtitle of virtually everything I do.”
“Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell; Little, Brown and Company; 401 pp.; $30
Author appearance: Seattle Arts & Lectures presents Malcolm Gladwell, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle, lectures.org. (Single tickets sold out; subscription options are available.)