Making Sloppy Progress

Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell

I recently finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers. In it he talks about how challenging it is to understand one another, and why. There are a few key concepts and missunderstandings that he hones in on to try and address why we’re so bad at understanding one another. He then summarizes these concepts using them as a lense to view the 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland that ended in her suicide.

Concepts Introduced in the Book

Defaulting to Truth

We, for good reason, default to beleiving what someone is telling us is true. It takes a lot of evidence and red-flags to convince us otherwise. He proposes that if we weren’t in this state, society wouldn’t function properly because we’d constantly be on “high alert”. We’d behave so inneficiently questioning every interaction that we’d never get anything.

He talks about The Holy Fool from Russian Folklore, an individual who doesn’t Default to Truth. This person who lives outside of society because they’re a whistleblower, they’re often ostrasized either by themselves or by society. The child in the story by Hans Christian Anderson - “The Emporer’s New Clothes” who calls out the emporor.

Harry Markopolos is an example Holy Fool who caught Bernie Madolf in the early 2000s. Harry, as explained in the book, is the type of person who doesn’t take people at face value. He investigated Bernie Madolf’s scheme and found obvious fraudulent behavior. Other people who found Bernie Madolf’s returns potentially too good to be true met the man themselves and frequently came away confident he wasn’t a con-man.


Also known as the “Friends” Falacy. That is, how we believe that there’s a “truth” written on our faces. This idea that if you see someone’s face and get a sense of their deameanor you can really understand them. He really hammers on how this simply isn’t true. This idea has been around since Charles Darwin suggested that expressions are a shared evolutionary trait.

In 2013 (check year) Sergio Jarillo, and Carlos Crelli, two spanish scientists, wentto the Trobriands. A tiny remote archipellago just northeast of Australia. Sergio, and Carlos asked them to examine pictures of faces and they were unable to recognize expressions we would obviously call happy or angry. Suggesting that facial expressions are cultural like language rather than biological.

From 2008 to 2013 Sendhil Mullainathan (a Harvard Economist) and his associates created an algorithm that examined the cases of 550k defendants, of which real judges released 400k on bail. When the algrithm chose who to let go on bail, the defendants %25 less likely commit a crime (not showing up counted as a crime). They assermined that seeing faces was a dissadvantage.

Matched and Mismatched

He refers to people that behave how we would expect them to when they’re lying (shifting, averting their gaze etc.) as matched and those who don’t (“they aren’t grieving properly!”) as mismatched. He specifically talks about Amanda Knox and how her quirky behavior struck the italian police as untrustworthy. About how - in spite of the evidence showing clearly that she had nothing to do with the murder - the people villified her. It’s crazy, but look at how people still view her to this day.


Context affects the way people behave. In 1960s england when they had “city gas” installed in all houses. Suicide rates were at 120 per million. Sylvia Plath famously committed suicide this way in 1963. When they exchanged city gas in homes for a natural gas that didn’t contain carbon monoxide, suicides dropped to 80/mil by 1970.

This fact is totally fascinating to me. Suicides didn’t move to something else, they weren’t displaced. People didn’t start jumping off of bridges or hanging themselves instead. The suicides were eliminated.

Crime works similarly. In 1995 Criminologists Larry Sherman, and David Weisburd discovered that more than 50% of police calls occurred in ~3.5% of blocks. This wasn’t just in one city either, this was in cities all over the world.

In Kansas City, where crime was extraordinarily bad in the mid-nineties, the police began a new process of policing detailed in Tactics for Criminal Patrol written by Charles Remsberg. A much more “active” or aggressive form of policing, regularly stopping people and asking probing questions. This is where “Curiosity Ticklers”, and “Going Beyond the Ticket”.

Aggressive policing worked. Violent crimes in Kansas City to drop by half. It didn’t move elsewhere, it dropped. This worked because they put them in the hotspots found by Larry and David.

Unfortunately, when other law enforcement centers starting taking these tactics up - they applied it much more broadly. Not just in the 3.5% streets, but all over the place. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol went from 400k/yr to 800k/yr after implementing these policies. This is a big part of what Malcom Gladwell believes went wrong in the tragic case of Sandra Bland.

Torture for Information

In a kind of… asside? Gladwell talks about the research of Charles Morgan shortly before 911. Morgan had examined SERE trainees performance recreating a Rey-Osterrieth Complex figure. A task high quality soldiers like Navy Seals are generally good at. SERE causes responses in trainees very similar to those in torture or active combat situations.

Of the soldiers who took the test after SERE training recreated the Rey-Osterrieth complex figure in the way a pre-pubescent child might. Implying that someone under severe durress is completely incapable of giving reliable information.

Gladwell then tells the story of Khalid Shiek Mohammed (MSK) - the most senior Al Qaeda official ever captured and questioned after 911. MSK claimed guilt for a massive laundry list of planned and executed terrorist attacks. Including planned attacks on the Hoover Dam, NATO Headquarters, and Nuclear Powerplants in the US. He proposes that it’s unlikely this information acquired under duress is actually of any use or even true.

Sandra Bland

The book wraps up with a detailed look at the case of Sandra Bland. On July 10th, 2015 Sandra Bland was driving (out of state) in Texas when a State Trooper Brian Encinia rushed up behind her. She moved to the side of the road to let him past and he then pulled her over for failing to use her turn signal.

Bland was irritated which Encinia read as on edge and dangerous (Transparency and Mismatched). They begin to have a verbal altercation and she then lights up a cigarette. He asks her (curtly) to put out the cigarette. She argues and he tells her to get out of the car.

She refuses to get out of the car and he tells her he’s going to use force. She continues to resist and he then forces her out of the vehicle and onto the ground while calling for backup. After she’s arrested he takes her back to the station where she hangs herself in a cell with a noose made by a plastic bag.

Brian Encinia was fired for misshandling this case but the author was frustrated with that conclusion. He believes there is a larger systemic issue at work here that needs to be addressed. He says that Brian Encinia was clearly abusing his authority, but there need to be other changes as well.

Gladwell argues that “Kansas City” style stops make no sense in rural low-crime regions like this. That it makes sense in areas “coupled” with crime because that’s where most crime occurs. Trooper Brian Encinia was convinced this was a dangerous area but he had never once arrested someone for a serious crime in that area. Constantly keeping police on high alert is causing this issue.

My Thoughts

I’m still digesting the book really but I found it really interesting. It’s full of stories that I don’t really do much justice here since I’m trying to be brief. I was completely unaware of the massive shift in the style of policing used after 1995 and am curious to know - can we go back? It seems painfully obvious to me that we do have systemic issues with our policing here in the states. People don’t like or trust police officers anymore and that’s a shame. The music video for “This is America” springs to mind. What a mess.

I’ve always been a supporter of our second ammendment rights. As I’ve gotten older I’ve asked myself “why” a lot. It’s important that we’re always ready to change our mind. I still have concerns that the people need to be able to defend themselves in the event that our government goes completely sour. What do you do when the government begins passing laws that the public at large completely disagrees with? If you no longer have weapons to defend yourselves, how do you even begin to resist?

But I watch the riots in Hong Kong, and the successful “peaceful” protests and I also think “maybe a government simply can’t get anything done if its people won’t budge”. Maybe we don’t need weapons to defend ourselves against our government, or rather, that’s not our most effective method of resistance.

I suppose I went down this path of thought because in the book he talks about “coupling”, and how a person’s situation and environment influences their behavior. When England removed city gas from people’s homes in the 60’s, suicides went down. People didn’t find a new way to kill themselves, they just didn’t kill themselves all together because the easy method was removed. Can the same be said of guns?

About Me

I'm a father of three and a software engineer for both hobby and trade. I enjoy tabletop role-playing and board games - especially of the heavily social variety! I also occasionally participate in game jams with friends.

I'm particularly interested in self-improvement in all of those things. I enjoy progressing through a new skill and learning ways of maximizing my time and focus.

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