Talking to strangers

Why do we tend to make false assumptions about people we know so little about? Why are we so bad at detecting lies? Why do we ignore context when analyzing people?

This will be a book summary, a type of post I haven’t written in a while. The book I’ll be discussing is called ‘Talking To Strangers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. It will be a study of our common misconceptions when understanding strangers, not so much a guide on communication.

I’ll discuss 2 of the puzzles brought up, a theory about defaulting to the truth, transparency, and how we confuse coupling with displacement. (It’ll all make sense further down).

Puzzles 1 & 2

#1: Why can’t we tell when when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?

Is it that we’re just gullible? We might seem to fall for lies more easily than other people. But without us realizing it, it’s in our nature. We tend to trust and believe people readily, because it provides an evolutionary advantage.

We have a default to the truth. This allows us to form communities and structure within society. The downside to that? We have to tolerate an enormous amount of error.

#2: How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of them, than not meeting them?

Judges, lawyers, interviewers and many other professions including doctors, seem to work on the basis that seeing the person face to face would allow for a ‘fairer’ judgement or diagnosis of them. But what if that isn’t always the case?

Getting more information or seeing a person’s facial expressions, only adds to the complexity of our judgment. This may make us at worse analyzing them, not better. It’s because we have an issue with transparency.

Truth default theory

We’re better than chance at correctly identifying people who are telling the truth, than identifying those who are lying.

We have a default to truth. Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest. This works alongside puzzle #1. So when do we believe people and when do we not?

Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts. Essentially, there’s a threshold of doubts that need to be triggered for us to figure out that someone is lying.

Were there enough red flags to push you over the threshold of belief?


“This is the idea that people’s behaviour and demeanor – the way they represent themselves on the outside– provides and authentic & reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”

Transparency is one the biggest flaws we make when making sense of strangers. We think that they way they ‘look’, indicates how they really ‘feel’. When we confront strangers, we have to replace our idea of them, with our direct experience with them.

It’s being conscious of stereotyping and assuming certain things about people you have absolutely no idea about.

We are bad lie detectors in situations when the person we’re judging is mismatched. When they aren’t transparent. We’re intolerant of emotional responses that fall outside our expectations.

Mismatched: When a person’s behaviour/demeanor doesn’t match how they feel.

Coupling vs displacement

Displacement: Assuming that people would go to any measure to achieve a certain objective. > Changing the conditions won’t stop them from trying to find an alternative.

Coupling: The idea that behaviours are linked to very specific circumstances & conditions. > If you change those circumstances, the behaviour would no longer prevail.

We need to understand that there’s a fundamental difference between coupling and displacement. Most of us have a natural tendency to think in terms of ‘displacement’. We need to start seeing how ‘coupling’ is a more realistic way to think, and that changes our entire perception of those around us.

We need to start understanding the importance of context, in which the stranger is operating. Two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who a stranger is: where & when.

“We think we can transform strangers without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and known, and we can’t.”

We should stop penalizing one another for defaulting to the truth. It’s in our nature to believe people are being honest, and it only becomes ‘clear’ to us that someone is lying when they’ve passed our threshold of belief.

There are certain individuals who are naturally mismatched -their demeanor doesn’t represent their feelings- and we often interpret them in the completely wrong way.

This was a rather difficult topic to discuss, considering that the book is filled with real-life examples that exemplify the concepts. If there’s anything you can take from this, is to be conscious of your assumptions. Analyze them before projecting them, and understand that your mind works in mysterious ways.

Everything isn’t as simple as it seems. The world doesn’t run transparently. People are often mismatched and we can’t blame them for our misinterpretations. Sometimes less is more, and acquiring too much information only adds to the complexity of the judgment.

So next time you talk to a stranger, smile & approach them with caution and humility. Accept that the search to understand them has real limits. You will never know the whole truth, but that’s what makes life interesting.