The Current

Can a stranger's demeanour tell you what they're thinking? Maybe not, says Malcolm Gladwell

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell explains why people aren't as good at reading strangers as they might think.

New book explores issues that arise when we think we know a stranger's intentions

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell argues that people aren't as good at reading strangers as they might think. (Celeste Sloman)
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Do you think you can read what a person is thinking based on the look on their face? Can you infer someone's intentions based on their body language? Think again, says Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell.

"I could be furious right now and you could look at my face and not know it — and I would not be unusual in that," said Gladwell, a staff writer with the New Yorker and the author of bestsellers like the Tipping Point and Outliers.

"That seems like a minor problem but you would be surprised by how many encounters between strangers go awry because we draw all kinds of false inferences from the information we gather from people's demeanour," he told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

Gladwell explores the blind spots in his new book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don't Know

During his research on interactions between strangers, he asked a psychologist to examine some familiar faces — the characters on the TV series Friends.

Gladwell examined an episode of Friends to find out if the emotions in each scene were represented in the characters' faces. (Friends/NBC)

He wanted to know whether the characters' emotions registered on their faces. "So when Joey is angry, does Joey show anger on his face? When Phoebe is surprised, does her jaw drop and do her eyes go wide?"

He said that "invariably in Friends, there is a perfect manifestation of your internal emotional estate on your face."

"I think we watch things like that and we think that's the way real life works. But in fact actual human beings don't behave that way," he argued.

Assumption of guilt

The book explores several examples of what can happen when someone's behaviour doesn't match society's expectations, including the murder trial of Amanda Knox.

The American woman was convicted in the 2007 murder of her roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, in an alleged sex game that went wrong.

During her murder trial, Amanda Knox's behaviour did not accord with how the public expected her to act, Gladwell said. (Pier Paolo Cito/Associated Press)

Gladwell said that during the initial investigation, Knox's behaviour did not accord with how law enforcement, the media, and the public expected her to act.

He said the reasoning was that "if she was kissing her boyfriend, she couldn't be grieving and upset. If she was angry, she was reacting in a way that didn't make sense to them, because they thought that she would be morose and silent." 
Gladwell's new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don't Know, explores what happens when your perception of a stranger leads to an incorrect judgment. (Celeste Sloman)

Speaking to The Current in 2013, Knox said: "In my opinion they were projecting their own ideas about female decadence upon me. I very much believe that they thought they knew who I was before they knew me and they never really gave me a chance."

Knox served four years in prison in Italy, but was eventually acquitted in 2015, due to insufficient evidence. In June, she returned to Italy to speak at a conference on criminal justice. 

"To the world, I wasn't a suspect innocent until proven guilty, I was a cunning, psychopathic, dirty, drugged-up whore who was guilty until proven otherwise," she told the audience.

Gladwell told Lynch that "this ties into a larger understanding of human behaviour."

"We have this assumption that there is a predictable way in which people manifest their emotions, and it's not true."

Assumptions can be used against us: author

The opposite of what happened to Amanda Knox can also be true, Gladwell said, pointing to the case of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff. 

In 2009, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison fleecing hundreds of investors out of tens of billions of dollars in a massive Ponzi scheme.

Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years behind bars in 2009. (Stuart Ramson/Associated Press)

Madoff was able to pull off the scheme, Gladwell explained, "because he is someone who projected honesty and competence and sincerity … and he was a complete fraud."

He told Lynch that Madoff was investigated over things that "didn't quite add up" several times over the course of his career.

Despite this, Madoff "would be so convincing that they would go away sort of shrugging, and saying: 'You know what, I think Bernie's alright,'" Gladwell said.

"That's the dishonest person … whose behaviour so is in keeping with our expectations of what honesty looks like, that we let all of our are our doubts fade away." 

Gladwell thinks we have the opportunity to be better, just by being more aware of our limitations in understanding strangers, and being more cautious about the conclusions we draw.

"We're still so in love with our ability to make sense of others, that we think: 'Oh it's fine, you know, a judge or a police officer or a job interviewer, they know what they're doing," he said.

"That's ostrich behaviour. It's not smart." 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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