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  • Writer's pictureSarah Carter


I have no poker face. It is both a blessing and a curse I think. This past weekend, I had dinner at a friend's house and spent some time talking with her seven-year-old son about dinosaurs. There was a loud crash from the kitchen during our conversation and he asked me "What was that!?!" I hadn't seen it, neither had he, but I decided to try to convince him that his dad had just dropped the pan of chicken so we would only be having green beans for dinner. I thought I had him fooled for a few seconds because his face seemed to be saying that he was seriously considering the possibility. Then he started laughing and said "Ms. Sarah, you're a terrible liar your face gives you away every time."

My seven-year-old pal may seem like an astute lie detector or he was relying on what we all rely on - transparency - and its flawed assumptions? Gladwell says, in Talking to Strangers: What we should know about the people we don't know, that "transparency is the idea that people's behaviour and demeanor - the way they represent themselves on the outside - provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside" (pg. 152). There is non-verbal communication going on during every encounter we have with other people and we expect those gestures, facial expressions, and emotional reactions to be genuine or otherwise aligned with how people feel on the inside.

These visual ques, along with our Truth Default (discussed in the previous blog post), are how we typically determine whether or not the statements the other person in our encounter is giving us accurate information. How did we become so reliant on transparency? Is it really a good gauge to use to determine someone's inner state? And, more importantly, how can we look beyond it's seemingly convenient draw for the truth in an encounter with a stranger?

How did we become reliant on transparency?

"Transparency is a myth - an idea we've picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero's 'jaw dropped with astonishment' or 'eyes went wide with surprise'" (pg. 162). Bard, storyteller, fabulists, author, and many other names are used to describe people who make their living off of dramatizing our world since probably the dawn of the human age. These professionals use non-verbal communication (both write and acted) to give their character portrayals more impact than just plain stating a characters emotional state. From the stories we've heard/seen over the years, we've formed expected, stereotypical response patterns in our minds for a whole catalog of possible life situations.

Think back on the last time you read/watched a scene where a character endures a devastating loss. Did the story conveyor say "And she was sad" to describe the scene? Or did they say/act out something lengthier with tears and sobbing that had you misty eyed as well? I'm betting the latter and that you loved it.

Because of our exposure to dramatized storytelling, we've come to expect the same out of our real-life encounters with strangers. "We believe someone's demeanor is a window into their soul" (pg. 154). We expect them to behave certain ways as a reaction to certain events. When people don't behave in the way that we expect based on the drama of the situation, we find ourselves, more often then not, suspicious of the other person. "When we confront a stranger, we have to substitute an idea - a stereotype - for direct experience. And that stereotype is wrong all too often" (pg. 163).

Is transparency a good gauge?

The short answer is no. Our expectation for transparent non-verbal communication is not a good indicator of another persons emotions or truthfulness. "We tend to judge people's honesty based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people who give windy, convoluted explanations aren't" (pg. 175).

Gladwell presents several high profile examples -of individuals who outwardly seem one way while their inside is totally opposite. (Amanda Knox, Bernie Madoff, and Sandra Bland to name a few.) He calls these people "mismatched" because of their divergent reactions. All of these examples acted a way that was contrary to expectations of their particular situations and the outcomes of their situations were extreme because of it. "We are bad lie detectors in those situations when the person we're judging is mismatched" (pg. 176) and "with strangers, we're intolerant of emotional responses that fall outside expectations" (pg. 182).

My lack of a poker face makes me well matched. I am one of those people who fits the over dramatized expectations we have all created to help us navigate our encounters with strangers. Generally though, "human beings are not transparent" (pg. 330) so what do we do?

How do we look beyond our expectations?

"The fact that strangers are hard to understand doesn't mean we shouldn't try" (pg. 260). As I mentioned in the previous post, those people who initially start out as strangers in your world could be just the piece of the puzzle missing in your life. "Our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary...We need to talk to them" (pg. 166). The people who correctly identified the intentions of the strangers, Gladwell references in the book, utilized other, non-sensory means: performance track records, what others said about the mismatched person, and observed behavior over time.

My friend's son had gathered plenty of data to support his claim that "my face gives me away every time" due to the numerous times he's observed my behavior when I've tried to trick him in small ways. He's also seen me in completely truthful situations and knows what to expect then. He's concluded, correctly, that I am not a mismatched person when it comes to my non-verbal communications aligning with my intentions and believes he'll be able to read me in any situation. You've got these people in your life too, and there will be similarly match strangers you encounter along the way but we aware of those who are mismatched. Strive to still look forward to meeting new people but work to not lean on your truth default or transparency expectations to accurately judge a person. Use other non-sensory means over the course of time and you'll find yourself being right about their character more often then not.

Until Next Time

The next book we'll be looking into is You According to Them: Uncovering the blind spots that impact your reputation and your career by Sara Canaday. What others say and think about you is part of how the astute observer's in Gladwell's book identified mismatched people and it also plays a big role in social/professional progression. Click the underlined title above to hop over to Amazon and order a copy today so you'll be ready to join the discussion on October 7th.

I'd love to hear from you between now and then! Tell me your thoughts on this post and book in the comments below, via any of my socials, or by emailing me. Your input helps me pick the books. Happy Reading.

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Sarah Carter
Sarah Carter
Sep 29, 2020

Hi @voijanelle! You are right, it is a combo of reasons why we develop the reactions that we do. The book talks about a very isolated island (no not here on Okinawa :) ) where the local people do not have a lot of the same reactive patterns that more modernized locations do. Reading what the people conducting that study learned was truly fascinating. I'm sure there are other similar studies, but we generally hold others to the expectations we have of ourselves. We know what we would do when faced with whatever the situation is and expect them to react similarly. When they don't, we are thrown off.


Sep 26, 2020

Is it as the saying goes"don't judge a book by it's cover"? Yes,some reactions or expressions are triggered automatically by everyone is the same.That's nature.Other reactions is by what we have been condition to act. I also believe that depending of what the person is going through at that moment in his life, his face might reveal something completely different.Therefore let us not judge a person by our first impression.

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