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Author Malcolm Gladwell on how to talk to strangers

Malcolm Gladwell is an acclaimed journalist, author and host of the podcast “Revisionist History.” In his latest book, “Talking to Strangers,” he explores how humans tend to misjudge each other during their first encounters, often perceiving conflict and danger where none exist. Gladwell shares his Brief But Spectacular take on intimacy, judgment and how to talk to people we’ve never met before.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Each week on Brief But Spectacular, we invite you to walk in the shoes of someone new.

    Tonight's episode features author Malcolm Gladwell, who tells us what to look for when meeting someone for the first time.

    His latest book is called "Talking to Strangers." Gladwell also hosts the podcast "Revisionist History."

  • Malcolm Gladwell:

    What I learned about our encounters with strangers is that we're in too much of a hurry, that we seize on what available evidence is out there and jump to conclusions, and we are probably not as aware as we should be about how many mistakes we make in that process.

    Every time you meet someone new, there is a thrill of anticipation. You're presented with a puzzle, which is, who is this person, what do they want, what are they like, what motivates them?

    It's easy to create the illusion of intimacy and create the illusion that you understand the person that you're talking to. But you should be careful, because you probably don't.

    When a judge confronts a defendant in an attempt to decide whether they should be given bail or not, how good are they at making that judgment? They're trying to predict, is the person so dangerous that they shouldn't be released, or so not dangerous that they should?

    And what you discover in that moment is that judges do a very bad job of that. And that's because they're human beings, and human beings doing a bad job of summing up in a one-minute confrontation with a — between a defendant and a judge. The judge doesn't nearly have enough material to make a reasonable and accurate assessment.

    I think we should be aware that an awful lot of what we consider to be conflict in the world is not conflict. It's misunderstanding.

    The story of Sandra Bland may be the most heartbreaking of that series of high-profile encounters between African-Americans and law enforcement.

    She's the young woman from Chicago who is in a small town in Texas and pulled over by a police officer. She was distressed, and he thought she was dangerous. Those are two extremely different emotions with very, very different consequences.

  • Sandra Bland:

    Why am I being apprehended? You just opened my car door. You just opened my car door. So, you're going to — you're threatening to drag me out of my own car?

  • Man:

    Get out of the car!

  • Malcolm Gladwell:

    She was the furthest thing from a threat to him. But he perceived her that way. It ended in tragedy.

    We have an enormous amount of curiosity about the people we're meeting. That's what drives us to try and reach conclusions about them. And I don't mean to temper that curiosity. I mean to extend it.

    We have to find ways, not to replace the human judgment, but to assist it. And we're starting to do that with things like artificial intelligence, which are just ways of helping human beings correct for some of their biases.

    We are trusting engines. And that's a good thing. And that's an easy thing for me to accept, because I grew up in Southern Ontario in the '70s. Very easy if you grew up in Southern Ontario to accept the fundamental notion that we're better off trusting strangers.

    We have to slow down and take our time and be willing to consider the possibility that people are more complicated than we assume.

    My name is Malcolm Gladwell. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on talking to strangers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You can find more Brief But Spectacular essays on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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