Talking to Strangers

„Talking to strangers“ by Malcolm Gladwell shows us why interacting with strangers can go terribly wrong.

Who is Malcolm Gladwell?


          Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw and David and Goliath. He is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, which produces the podcast Revisionist History and Broken Record. Gladwell has been included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list and touted as one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.

Ironically, strangers are, sometimes, the people closest to us


          We think we are capable enough to correctly read the people we meet for the first time. Moreover, we believe that we know the people we call contacts, friends, relatives, and so on. In fact, we know only what the person in front of us wants us to know. Nothing more.

          Florentino Aspillaga was the intelligence officer of the year in the Cuban Spy Service in 1985. Fidel Castro himself gave him a letter of commendation. He had served his country with distinction in Moscow, Angola, and Nicaragua. He was a star. But, at some point during his steady ascent, he grew disenchanted. He watched Fidel Castro give a speech in Angola, celebrating the Communist Revolution there. Aspillaga had been appalled by the Cuban leader’s arrogance and narcissism.

          June 6th, 1987, Aspillaga planned his defection. He drove to Viena, with his girlfriend, who was hiding in the trunk of his car and walked through the gates of the United States Embassy. They flew him to the United States where a former Havana Station Chiefs, called the Mountain Climber came to debrief him. Actually, Aspillaga was the one who insisted that the Mountain Climber was the one to debrief him.

Why talking to Aspillaga was fruitful


          According to Aspillaga, the CIA had a network of spies inside Cuba. The spies’ reports to their case officers helped shape America’s understanding of its adversary. Aspillaga named one of them and said: “He’s a double agent. He works for us.” The room froze. They had no idea.

But Aspillaga kept going. He named another spy. He too was a double. Then another, and another. He had names, details, chapter and verse. He continued on like that until he had listed a dozen of names. Practically, the entire U.S. roster of secret agents inside Cuba. They were all working in Havana, feeding the CIA information cooked up by the Cubans themselves.

          The blow was fatal.

          Aspillaga was talking about the Mountain Climber’s people, the spies he had worked with when he had been posted to Cuba as a young and ambitious intelligence officer.

          It got worse. When Fidel Castro heard that Aspillaga had informed the CIA about their humiliation, he decided to rub salt on the wound. Castro rounded up the entire cast of pretending CIA agents and paraded them across Cuba on a triumphant tour. Then he released on Cuban television an astonishing eleven-part documentary entitled “The CIA’s war against Cuba”.


What went wrong?


          What is baffling about Florentino Aspillaga’s story is not the betrayal but the incompetence of the CIA. The Cubans fooled the CIA, an organization that takes the problem of understanding strangers very seriously.

          There were extensive files on every one of those double agents. The Mountain Climber says he checked them carefully. There were no obvious red flags. Like all intelligence agencies, the CIA has a division of counterintelligence, whose job is to monitor its own operations for signs of betrayal.

What had they found? Nothing.

          The Mountain Climber argues that the tradecraft of the CIA Cuban Section was just sloppy. Yet, he had previously worked in Eastern Europe against East Germany, and there, he said, the CIA had been much more meticulous. But what was the CIA’s record in East Germany? Just as bad as the CIA’s record in Cuba. After the Berlin Wall fell, East German spy chief Markus Wolf wrote in his memoirs:

          “We were in the enviable position of knowing that not a single CIA agent had worked in East Germany without having been turned into a double agent or working for us from the start. On our orders, they were all delivering carefully selected information and disinformation to the Americans”.

          If the CIA’s best can be misled so completely, so many times, then what about the rest of us?

Amanda Knox’s Case


          On the night of November 1, 2007, Meredith Kercher was murdered by Rudy Guede. However, Rudy Guede was not the exclusive focus of the police investigation. The focus was, instead, on Kercher’s roommate Her name was Amanda Knox. She came home one morning and found blood in the bathroom. She and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, called the police. The police came and believed it was a drug- and alcohol-fuelled sex game gone awry, featuring Guede, Sollecito and Knox. The three were arrested, charged and sent to prison.

          However, the police investigation against Amanda Knox was shockingly inept. The analysis of the DNA evidence supposedly linking her and Sollecito to the crime was completely botched. Her prosecutor was irresponsible, obsessed with fantasies about sex crimes. Yet, it took a ruling by the Italian Supreme Court, eight years after the crime, for Amanda Knox to be finally declared innocent. What went wrong in her case?

Tim Levine’s experiment and its findings


          The psychologist Tim Levine has conducted hundreds of versions of the same experiment. He invites students to his laboratory and gives them a trivia test. What is the highest Mountain in Asia? That sort of questions. If you answer correctly, you win a cash prize. To help them out, the students get a partner. In the room with the student and their partner, we have an instructor, called Rachel. Midway through the test, Rachel leaves the room. Then, the carefully scripted performance begins. The partner says: “I don’t know about you, but I could use the money. I think the answers are right there”. He points to an envelope lying in plain sight on the desk. “It’s up to them whether they cheat or not”, says Levine. In about 30% of the cases, they cheat.

          When the student and their partners are questioned about whether they cheated or not, some lie and some tell the truth. Their reactions are recorded and observed. The big question is whether we are capable of telling which one of them is lying and which one is telling the truth.

          The result is astonishing. On average, the people Levine had watched the tapes, correctly identified the liars 56%. Other psychologists have tried different versions of the same experiment. The average for all of them was 54%. Just about everyone is terrible: police officers, judges, therapists – even CIA officers running big spy networks overseas. Everyone. Why?

The Truth Default

          The greatest insight came from one of Levine’s graduate students, Hee Sun Park. Her insight was that the 54-per cent deception-accuracy figure was averaging across truths and lies. “You come to a different understanding if you break out… how much people are right on truths, and how much people are right on lies”

          We are much better than chance at identifying correctly the students who are telling the truth. But, we’re much worse than chance at correctly identifying the students who are lying. We go through the videos and we say that it’s true, true, true – which means we get most of the truthful interviews right, and most of the liars wrong.

          We have a default to the truth. Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.

          What Levine discovered was that most of us aren’t very good at lie detection because we’re truth biased. For what turns out to be good reasons, we give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the people we’re talking to are being honest.


Amanda Knox’s wrongful imprisonment


          The Truth-default seems to have failed in Amanda Knox’s case.

          Another fallacy is transparency. We believe we can read the people standing in front of us because what they display on the outside must be what they are feeling on the inside. However, if we believe that, we might miss the chance to truly get to the heart of the problem. We end up not only dealing with a problem from a wrong angle but dealing with the wrong problem altogether, as Michael Bungar Tanier points out in “The Advice Trap”.

          We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanour. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people, who give windy, convoluted explanations aren’t.

          Amanda Know didn’t fit the police’s pattern of a person grieving after their roommate. She was a young, impulsive 20-year-old who made some bad comments regarding a situation. She gave angry answers to the murder questioning, instead of the “normal” grieving ones. Just because she behaved differently in a crisis situation, she was labelled as mismatched, and therefore guilty. The evidence was built around that and lead to her wrongful imprisonment.




          When we behave differently than how people expect us to behave in similar situations, judgement can be misleading. We all feel the same situation in a different way. For this reason, it’s unfair for other people to match our perception of what normal behaviour would be in such a situation.

          Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister in 1938 made the same mismatching error. Chamberlain was trying to avert world war, and it seemed to him that he would benefit from taking the measure of Hitler for himself. Was Hitler someone who could be reasoned with? Trusted?

          Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hiter are widely regarded as one of the great follies of the Second World War. He fell under Hitler’s spell. He misread Hitler’s intentions.

          Chamberlain was acting on the same assumption that we all follow in our efforts to make sense of strangers. We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable. Companies don’t just hire employees without first talking to them. They call them and interview them closely, sometimes for hours at a stretch, on more than one occasion. They do what Chamberlain did: they look people in the eye, observe their demeanour and behaviour and draw conclusions. “he gave them the double handshake”. Yet all that information Chamberlain gathered from his personal interactions with Hitler didn’t help see Hitler more clearly. It did the opposite.


We are more helpless than we think


          Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t want us to believe that we are totally wrong in our interpretation of strangers or people close to us for that matter. What he wants us to do is to understand the reasons for which we are, at times, completely wrong in our assumptions.

There is nothing wrong with assuming people are genuinely honest. Our truth-default kicks at the moment we meet someone new. We like to believe that people have good intentions, place their behaviours and words on that assumption. However, when we are guided only by our truth-default, we might be fooled into believing that the person standing in front of us is honest. We should trust our truth-default because we cannot go around placing everyone under a question mark. That would make us unable to develop healthy relationships with the people around us. However, it’s not wrong to, once-in-a-while, ask one or two questions just to make sure. Would that do us any good?

We read people based on the information we receive from them. We believe that we can honestly tell what a person is feeling based on their appearance, their words and their behaviours. However, there are times when we mismatch people. We have gotten used to labelling people as honest, dishonest, friendly, unfriendly, not knowing that there are moments when they can be mismatched. A grieving person can be angry. An abused person can be happy when trying to cope with an unfriendly environment. People have developed mechanisms that cannot and shouldn’t be labelled. Otherwise, we fall into the fallacy of missing out on something worthwhile.

We are no better at interpreting the people standing in front of us as they are interpreting us. There is no right or wrong way of talking to strangers. I guess our best guess is to trust our sixth sense when it tells us to stay away from somebody or build a relationship. If it’s what Evy Pompouras, former Secret Service agent, as she lays it out in her “Becoming bullet proof”, does, why would it work for us as well?      


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