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The Irony and Candour of the Statement, “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”

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“Don’t talk to strangers.”

This is what we were taught when we were children. Now, in every career meeting, mentorship, article or conversation, we are instructed to network as much as we can. Basically, this means that we are now free to talk to as many strangers as we can. In fact, if we don’t, we won’t succeed. What has changed?

Similarly, people are really interested in whether you are married or not, or whether you are in a relationship. They are interested in knowing whether there is a stranger you have made a life commitment to. Isn’t this stranger phenomenon fascinating?

Strangers are not very nice

But as much as we get the push to interact and integrate these strangers into our lives, they end up hurting us sometimes. We get double-crossed in deals, we get fired undeservedly from work, and we get heartbroken. I think the heartbreaks hurt much more. But even then, we are encouraged to soldier on. Keep finding and interacting with strangers. Maybe you will find one who will be the best business partner, the ultimate employer, or even the better half. It seems being hurt by strangers is just the opportunity cost you have to pay in life.

Complexities of communicating

What makes us acquainted with strangers? Communication. We were not allowed to speak to strangers when we were children because our communication and decision-making skills were not yet sophisticated enough to sufficiently enable us to make the right decisions. The idea was that these strangers would take advantage of us. As an adult, we are now presumed to be experienced enough to sort through the manipulation and deception and decide accordingly. But even with the years of learning we have had, that process is not error-free. We still get duped, deceived, and at times taken advantage of.

What demeanour tells us

According to Professor Timothy R. Levine, the first error we make is depending on a person’s demeanour while communicating to decipher whether they are telling the truth or not. There are all these psychological tricks for detecting lies. The tricks go something like this, ‘If a person looks at a given direction or if a person twitches or blinks, that means they are either lying or telling the truth.’ The assumption is usually that one’s emotions would leak through their facial expressions and gestures. Although they might sometimes, people who are determined to deceive can bypass such reactions. Also, culturally we depict different facial expressions and gestures to mean different things.

How to detect deception

How then can we be able to detect deception so that we can smoothen our interactions with strangers? Before we answer this question, we have to understand how we first interact with strangers. Professor Levine has done extensive work on deception and deception detection. He says that the first assumption made when we meet strangers is that the stranger is telling the truth. This is called the truth default theory. We naturally default to thinking that people are honest when communicating. It is only after we have been given a reason to doubt or develop a suspicion that we question the truthfulness of their communication.

Truth Default

Think of your last interaction with a stranger. When you asked their name, did it cross your mind that they might be lying? But then again, what reason do you have to doubt them? The only way we can function as a society is if we operate from this premise. The premise of truth. Otherwise, we’d all be stuck in running background checks of every piece of information we get. Doing this would cripple us.

Furthermore, the prevalence of lying is not normally or evenly distributed across the population. Most people are honest most of the time. There are a few people, however, that lie often. Most lies are told by a few prolific liars. And it is these prolific liars who devastate us when we come across them.

Lie base rate (lie threshold)

But something interesting with defaulting to truth is that it is not easy to abandon it. Once you default to believing that a person is telling the truth, it is very difficult to believe otherwise. This is called the lie base rate. The lie base rate is the proportion of any sets of messages that are honest and deceptive. It means that there is a threshold of truth or lies that you cannot change your initial belief until you get past.

When you meet a stranger, and you become well acquainted, it is because you are operating from the premise of truth. When you find out that they lied to you at a given time in your relationship, you do not dump them there and then. It is only when there is accumulative evidence that you have been lied to over and over that you can terminate the relationship. Interestingly, suppose you don’t find enough evidence to tip you over the threshold?. In that case, you default back to truth and regard your suspicion as a glitch in the system, or you continue your relationship looking for further evidence of deceit.

Both the truth default and the lie base rate allow for manipulation by strangers. These two phenomena keep us in the loop to be taken advantage of, making our interaction with strangers not the best of experiences.

Sneaky lies

Most lies are detected after-the-fact based on either confessions or the discovery of some evidence showing that what was said was false. Very few lies are detected in real-time based only on the sender’s nonverbal behaviour’s passive observation. Therefore the only valid defense against being duped is to use correspondence information. Correspondence involves the consistency between what was/is communicated and external evidence or the knowledge the communication receiver has.

Correspondence and coherence are two types of consistency information that may be used in deception detection. Correspondence has to do with comparing what is said to what is known, facts and evidence. It involves fact-checking. Coherence involves the logical consistency of communication. Though, correspondence is more effective than coherence in deception detection.

Context, context!

In addition, understanding communication requires understanding what is said and taking that into context. Knowing about the context in which the communication occurs can help detect lies. For instance, people lie for a reason, but the motives behind truthful and deceptive communication are the same. When the truth is consistent with a person’s goals, they will always communicate honestly. Deception becomes probable when the truth makes honest communication difficult or inefficient. Therefore, if you understand the context upon which communication is conducted, you will accurately assess the other party’s motives and check yourself against defaulting to the truth.

So what then?

In summary, although you are better off than a child when interacting with strangers, you are still subject to being duped. Disappointingly, you can’t accurately distinguish an honest person from a deceptive one just by passive observation. You can only learn of deception after the fact. Meaning the phenomenon of meeting strangers remains a jungle. We can only do our best and hope not to meet so many prolific liars to break our spirit.

Also Read: What Does Communication Have to Do With Our Mental Health?


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