Wednesday, August 11, 2021

TALKING TO STRANGERS By Malcolm Gladwell (2019)

TALKING TO STRANGERS By Malcolm Gladwell (2019)

Adventure of Discovery of the Minds of Others.  Reading Malcolm Gladwell is to be in the presence of a great mind, a great heart, and a great spirit.  He goes beyond the intellectual stimulation for which he is so rightly famous, and shows real sensitivity to the human condition.  I feel that Malcolm Gladwell cares about what I do with the insights he has given me.  The insights themselves are a treat.  The caring on top of that is surprising and delightful.

I would feel presumptuous in the extreme to write a book review of any of  Malcom Gladwell's works.  I would feel wholly inadequate to do a book report on any of his works.  Instead, my attempt is to make notes on my experience of the adventure of discovery of the minds of others.  In so doing, it is my hope to honor Mr. Gladwell by showing just how much his work made me think, feel, and get more in touch with my humanity.

Mr. Gladwell wanted to be a lawyer.  He would have been an excellent lawyer (but it would have been a waste in the same way Eddie Redmayne becoming a lawyer would have been a waste).  Understanding the view from the other side of the table is vital to lawyering.  Getting into the mind of the opposing party, and opposing counsel, and understanding how they think and perceive the situation is an invaluable skill.  Mr. Gladwell celebrates that skill.  He is a master at play with that skill.  It is beautiful to watch.


In my law practice, MULVANEY LAW OFFICES, PLLC, I talk to strangers every day.  This book contained an abundance of things I need to know and to use better.  There is a reason they call it a "practice."  I constantly make changes to get closer to best practices in all situations at all times.  This is a tall order - for which I need all the help I can get.  Thank you for giving me a boost with this book.

     This work examines several different, but related, aspects of communication including:

  1. Default to Truth
  2. Transparency & Mismatch
  3. Coupling
  4. Getting People to Talk, and
  5. Police Interactions.
Default to Truth.  Human beings generally trust each other, and assume that others are being honest unless and until a Tipping Point is reached.  Quite a lot of indicators can stack on each other until this point is reached.  This feature of human psychology and interactions is exploited by a minority of people such as Bernie Madoff.  Some people are the price we pay for having the Default to Truth lubricant for social interactions.  If everyone was suspicious and skeptical all the time, society could not function.  Everything would take many times the amount of time to complete.

For me, the striking thing about the analysis was the realization that the most skeptical people have trouble bonding with others and being believed.  If the Default to Truth could be turned on and off, then then the person who was temporarily skeptical could be their own messenger, but that is not usually what happens.  An overly suspicious and skeptical person needs to convince an influencer with the Default to Truth in abundance in order to get the message heard.  Apparently that is what happened with the whistleblower who kept sounding the alarm for 10 years before Bernie Madoff was arrested,

I thought of the mindset of the soldier and how important it is to be able to turn it on and off.  Soldiering requires considerable indoctrination.  Most people have difficulty following orders to kill strangers.  Soldiers who are not able to shut off their mindset can have difficulty decades later as civilian.  For example, my mother is a retired nurse from the VA Medical Center in Spokane.  Some WWII veterans refused to have Japanese nurses in their rooms.  They still harbored hate.  It did not serve their mental or physical health well as civilians and is no longer necessary, but they could not shut it off.

Knowing the proper and improper times to do and say things, and being able to change with those times is the key.  If you don't have the key yourself, and you know it, perhaps cultivating alliances with people whose mindset, words, and deeds change seemingly effortlessly as situations change would be of benefit.  If you remain fixed in a pit of your beliefs (especially those that are a default to skepticism, mistrust, and sometimes paranoia) being around people who are not so fixed can help show the way out of the pit.

Transparency & MismatchI live in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, so the discussion of Amanda Knox who is from Seattle was close to home.  Innocent; she served years in an Italian prison with no physical evidence largely because her reactions did not match what was expected.  Actors, criminals, terrorists,  pedophiles, and grifters all need to be highly attuned to expected reactions and match them as precisely as possible in order to accomplish their goals.  Many people may not even be aware of the extent their reactions don't match expectations.

In law school, I did an internship in criminal defense.  Criminal defendants are usually acutely aware of Judges and Juries expectations regarding display of signs of contrition because if they are not, they tend to receive longer sentences. Most people are not so harshly punished for mismatch and are therefore less aware.

Knowing that certain people need to know how to deceive should presumably build faster to the Tipping Point, but it does not appear so.  Knowing that the accuracy of lie detection is generally low, even among professional investigators of crimes, should presumably reduce the speed to the Tipping Point,  but it does not appear so.  

Human beings are more than rational.  Reason is only part of us.  Another part is a Judge wanting to see a Defendant's face, eyes, and demeanor even though computer software can make about 25% better bail decisions than Judges - with less information.  The power of charm and the cult of personality appear to be effective because of human needs.  On some level we don't want justice so much as a feeling that we are rewarding the beautiful and the charming and punishing the ugly and the mismatched.

Knowing this hopefully produces some humility and less self-righteousness.

Coupling. Research shows the human behavior is influenced by environmental factors much more than is commonly though.  I proposed to my wife with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.  More than 1,500 people have jumped from that bridge.  Nets were installed 80 years after construction of the bridge (even though nets erected during construction and then removed saved 19 lives).  Suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge are coupled.

A discussion of "Town Gas" (Coal Gas) in England is especially poignant.  Data shows that when natural gas replaced the high carbon monoxide town gas, suicides by other methods did not increase - even after head in the oven suicides dropped to zero.  Convenient means costs lives.  Suicide and Town Gas were coupled.

Understanding that criminal behavior can be coupled with subway graffiti was a major breakthrough for New York City.  Crime was in fact reduced by cleaning up the subway cars.  Crime was reduced by prosecuting subway fare beaters and panhandlers.  It is indeed the little things that matter, and the little interactions between people.  Clean, well lit, green spaces without graffiti, broken, windows, or litter reduces crime.  Manners and rituals of treating each other with respect (especially family) builds culture and resilience.  If we start with that strong foundation we can build on it.  If the foundation is cracked and weak, marked by crime and disrespect, what is built leans and topples.  By seeing connectedness (coupling) where it was previously invisible, and therefore not understood, we can do things like precipitously drop crime and suicide.

Getting People to TalkI am from Spokane, the place where the architects of the torture (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) program following 911 were from.  I read some of the heavily redacted "Torture Memos" written by the Attorney General's Office.  I felt sick.  Nothing I was asked to to as an Associate Attorney remotely approached the horror of having to legally justify torture.

Studies show that the extreme stress of torture reduces the ability to recall information, and can distort that information sometimes by creating false memories.  Some torture victims simply confess to everything they can think of to build up their legacy and make the pain stop.  Family members and associates of those tortured tend to become violent enemies of the United States - making us less safe. See Black Sites.  So, torture doesn't work and the blowback from it harms us.  Why do we do it?

I couldn't help thinking that there must be better ways to get information from people.  Prescription drugs, alcohol, sex, brain scans showing recognition of images, reviewing video for millisecond unconscious facial expressions (thin-slicing), and psychological appeals related to family, friends, associates, religion, group membership or hometown challenging beliefs about what is being accomplished by terrorist acts before trying things like sleep, food, and water deprivation and isolation coupled with good cop/bad cop seem to be better options than "waterboarding" and "walling."

I had a nagging sensation that effectiveness really wasn't the point.  The point was power and humiliation.  Human beings with an urgent need for information aimed at saving lives from terrorist attack need to feel powerful because they feel out of control.  We need to humiliate the cause of that lack of control.  I may be naive, but perhaps knowing that can be the basis for a conversation about the situation that produces better results.  For example, poison gas was used on the Kurds in Iraq.  By showing video of those dead bodies in the hometown of a potential informant, the potential may tip into actual informing even if there was a previously close relationship that would have to be betrayed.

Police Interactions.  If ever there was a rich, timely, and historically deep subject to explore about America.  This is it.  I used to be in Toastmasters to improve public speaking.  One of my fellow Toastmasters was a black man who was a 20 year veteran of the Air Force (Fairchild Air Force Base is the largest employer in Spokane).  He told me that he would not drive in North Idaho at night.  This was during the time before Morris Dees sued the Aryan Nations of Hayden Lake, Idaho and bankrupted them.  What was sad and striking to me was that it wasn't just the Aryan Nations that was of concern to this man - he was also afraid of being pulled over by the police.  Here is a man who served his country honorably for decades who is concerned not just with racists, but with the police as well (who may or may not be racists, but are cause for concern nonetheless).

My own interactions with the police have been blessedly few.  One night in my office with windows looking out to the trees, mountains, and sky, I saw flashing police lights in the parking lot followed by the sounds of siren bursts, shouting, and throwing of things at my window.  I was perplexed and annoyed because I was trying to concentrate on work.  I ended up closing my blinds and turning out my lights and continuing to work.  I found out later that the police received a report of an armed intruder in my building, but they couldn't come up the elevator without a code and the couldn't open the doors from the stairwell without a key.  If I would have walked out to let them in across the path of an armed intruder I would have been in danger.  No armed intruder would remain with all that police racket going on so there was no chance of apprehending anyone.  Yet they persisted, and persisted.

What I realized is that I was harboring resentment for the traffic cameras that I believe are unconstitutional.  The State Legislature had to enact a Statute creating a presumption that the owner of the car is the driver in order to get around the unconstitutionality of an officer not seeing the infraction and writing an affidavit.  Instead, they have video and a presumption created to cure a constitutional defect.  My mother and I each received a ticket from one of these cameras.

My wife received a ticked for 5 mph over the speed limit going down a hill to the freeway onramp in downtown Bellevue.  Insurance premiums did not change for the camera tickets, but they did increase by $25 for the officer given speeding ticket and never went down.  That is $300 a year, every year, for decades.  I believed I was justified in not responding to the ridiculous and dangerous ignorant rudeness of the police.  I am a white man who is 6'5" tall and weighs over 300 pounds.  Not everyone has that luxury.

The power to tax is the power to destroyTraffic tickets are a tax and should be treated as such subject to all constitutional constraints of equal protection and due process.

Conclusion.  Awareness of these 5 concepts, defaulting to truth, mismatch of behavior and expectations, coupling, getting the truth, and the dynamics of power differential interactions can lead to not just more effective communication, but to improvements in the justice of outcomes.  By improving the fairness of our interactions we can increase peace and harmony.  If some of the fear and misunderstanding we bring into our contacts with others can be replaced by some understanding and compassion, the world becomes just a little bit better - one stranger at a time.

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