Talking to Strangers

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26 March 2020

Malcolm Gladwell's books are always pageturners for me, and Talking to Strangers was no exception. He's an infectiously optimistic person about whatever he's talking about. This book centers around the idea that human beings are inherently bad at talking to strangers. If you're nodding your head yes to this, then chances you grew up in a European or European influenced culture. Because if you grew up in India you'd signal agreement by moving your head side to side. SMH there means approval. Discovering this as a young adult when I first started watching Bollywood movies was mind blowing and got me thinking about a lot of the facial expressions and gestures that we use to communicate. Gladwell in his book gives the example of a set of pictures showing people expressing various emotions (sad, happy, etc.) like we European-minded folks expect them to be. Europeans are spot on at identifying the emotions the pictures are supposed to represent. Pacific islanders, not so much. Gladwell then presents us with a Friends episode many of my generation of Americans remember, where Ross discovers Monica and Chandler are in a relationship. With the sound off most Americans can tell what is happening because of the facial expressions of the actors, but other cultures not so much.

People on the autism spectrum are said to be bad at reading facial expressions, but maybe they've just realized that facial expressions can be poor indicators of emotion. Gladwell goes into detail about a number of cases, legal cases, where someone who's outward appearance didn't fit the expected norm for an emotional state and it led to disasterous consequences. Like the case of Amanda Knox, who's travails fed my own fear of traveling abroad for a long time. She is what Gladwell calls mismatched. Her expressions of emotion do not match the societally accepted norms for those expressions and so when put in a situation where people are using her expressions to judge her, she was basically screwed. Gladwell makes a good case for this miscarriage of justice be systematic.

The thread throughout the book that scares me and has been my own personal bane is how law enforcement in the United States is trained wrong, policing ineffectively and victimizing mismatched people. Like me. Confront me about something difficult where I've screwed up and I'm likely to yawn at you. Tell me about something horrible that happened and I'm liable to smile. I spent the better part of my late twenties and thirties with this latent PTSD from violent encounters with police. But if you're fidgity and nervous when talking to the police that makes them all the more suspicious. So I learned that I had to act. The American justice system didn't care about the reign of terror their officers were visiting upon their citizens. And Gladwell gives a fascinating history of how we got here.

What I have learned in Norway is that it doesn't have to be this way. Policework can be about defending the peace rather than racking up as many tickets and arrests and escalating situations whenever possible. Bookending Gladwell's tale is the story of Sandra Bland, who fell victim to the common "lawful order" escalation tactic that officers use. In many states, like where she was in Texas, when a police officer gives a "lawful order" it is the citizen's duty to obey. She was asked to put out a cigarette she was smoking in her car after being pulled over. She was agitated about the arrest from her own PTSD from prior experience with such thugs, and the officer escalated the situation. A failure to signal became a failure to follow a lawful order became resisting arrest became with her life ruined she committed suicide on her third day in jail. He racked up more citations and was only let go because of the media storm over Black Live Matter. Bland was a black woman. The same story minus the suicide has happened to countless others. It doesn't have to and I hope Gladwell's book will be read widely enough to effect some positive change.

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This file last modified 3 April 2020 by Bradley James Wogsland.

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