I’ve always enjoyed talking to strangers. Restaurant servers, retail clerks, bank tellers, people waiting for the streetcar or those sitting next to me at a concert. My mother was the same way. She could strike up a conversation with just about anyone about anything. She’d smile her winning smile and most everyone would respond. My father loathed her friendliness. He’d sulk until the conversation ended, or he could direct her far enough away from her new-found friend that she turned off the charm.
When my daughter was a baby in a highchair, she loved going to restaurants. She’d pick a victim, as we would call the unsuspecting guest, and begin to make happy faces and giggles until the person relented and began making happy faces back to her. It was heavenly for me because I could take her to any restaurant, knowing she wouldn’t cry or make a fuss. In every case, the victim had just as good a time as my little daughter often pulling their chair close to our table.
No one ever suggested that this was dangerous behaviour until Malcolm Gladwell published his recent number one bestselling book Talking to Strangers. In this new book, Gladwell argues that something is very wrong with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.
Gladwell is brilliant and indescribably outrageous. He’s the author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. His ideas have permeated the consciousness of millions, so much so that we use his words, “outlier” or “tipping point” in everyday parlance. For me, he is one-third public intellectual, one-third pop psychologist and one-third inscrutable magician with a golden pen. Gladwell, who grew up in Ontario, and now lives in New York City, can make just about anything sound intriguing.
I saw him recently being interviewed by Steve Paikin on TVO’s The Agenda, and it was the first time in the many years I’ve been watching Paikin that he was acting a tiny bit cowed by his guest. Gladwell is so quick and so smart and so original that whatever he says sounds entirely authentic or at least provocative. His research is extensive, and never pedantic.
In the first anecdote in Talking to Strangers, Gladwell shows how one of the most sophisticated organizations in the world, the CIA, was utterly fooled by a bunch of Cubans personally chosen by Fidel Castro to act as double agents. For years, there was nothing the CIA was doing on the island that the Cubans didn’t know about. After the agents came clean, the Cubans even made an 11-part documentary entitled “The CIA’s War against Cuba.” As Gladwell says, “Cuban intelligence, it turned out, had filmed and recorded everything the CIA had been doing in their country for at least ten years – as if they were creating a reality show. Survivor: Havana Edition. On the screen, identified by name, were CIA officers supposedly under deep cover.”
As with each case study in this book, the puzzle Gladwell presents is, “Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face? This question is particularly relevant for older adults who are often the victims of scams, often online and on the telephone.
I can’t count how many times I’ve answered the phone to hear a fake message claiming to be from the Canadian Revenue Agency and advising me that if I don’t call this number immediately, I’ll be in contravention of the law. I never reply because I’m a cynical journalist, but some people do and to their peril.
Yet, I take exception with Gladwell’s premise that “we have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.” In this digital age when so much of what we do is done online without any human interaction, Gladwell is suggesting that we’re better off dealing with algorithms, which don’t make as many mistakes as humans. I beg to differ. It’s bots, the dark web, fake news and mysterious algorithms that are disrupting our hold on the truth and not face-to-face meetings with real people.
A recent opinion piece by the New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof pinpoints the exact opposite of Gladwell’s warning by writing about loneliness. Relentless loneliness is the feeling that so many are struggling with. He writes: “More than one-fifth of adults in both the United States and Britain said in a 2018 survey that they often or always feel lonely. More than half of American adults are unmarried, and researchers have found that even among those who are married, 30 percent of relationships are severely strained. A quarter of Americans now live alone, and as the song says, one is the loneliest number.
“Loneliness affects physical health in two ways. First, it produces stress hormones that can lead to inflammation and other health problems. Second, people who are alone are on average less likely to go to doctor appointments, to take medicine or to exercise and eat a healthy diet. We may resent nagging from loved ones, but it can keep us alive.”
My adage is to use your head when dealing with strangers. Most people are not crooks or fraudsters. I’d say that the vast majority of people we deal with mean well. Strangers often talk to us in the line at the supermarket or sitting on the bus because they are lonely and seeking out human contact, no matter how fleeting. Most people that we meet are neither spies from a foreign country nor Ponzi scheme manipulators.
It’s been thirty years since my mother passed, but I still remember how adept she was at talking to strangers, and how it eased the loneliness that was her life.