Most recruiters — myself included — think they have a better than average ability to understand people. We think that by meeting someone, shaking their hand, and looking into their eyes, we can get a grasp on who they are, how they feel, and what their motives are.

But we’re wrong. Strangers are complex. Any meeting of strangers — like, say, a job interview — is almost guaranteed to produce misinterpretations.

In Talking to Strangers, author Malcolm Gladwell takes a close look at such misinterpretations and their causes. Gladwell presents us with two primary puzzles surrounding our interactions with strangers:

  1. Why can’t we tell when a stranger is lying to our face?
  2. How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?

For a recruiter, solving these puzzles is paramount. The better we can understand strangers, the better our judgments will be. We’ll rely less on bias, make better hires, and become better recruiters.

If only it were that easy.

Accepting Our Limits

Gladwell begins his book with the story of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who was stopped by a traffic cop in a small Texas town. Bland was driving when she noticed a police car accelerating behind her. Doing what all of us would have done, Bland moved aside to let the car pass — and just like most of us in that situation, she didn’t bother hitting the blinker. It was on that technicality that the officer, Brian Encinia, pulled her over.

In the course of the stop, Bland lit a cigarette. Encinia demanded that she put it out. When she protested, he instructed her to get out of the car. After some minor resistance on her part, Bland was arrested and put in jail. Three days later, while still being held, Bland was found dead in her cell. The death was ruled a suicide, but many have questioned that conclusion.

As Gladwell notes, Bland’s case is one of several high-profile incidents in which the aggressive behavior of a police officer led to the death of a Black American, a pattern that inspired the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to Gladwell, the tragic lesson of Bland’s story has universal implications. The officer in question failed to correctly identify how Bland was feeling and what she was thinking. He therefore reacted poorly, and the situation escalated unnecessarily.

The Illusion of Transparency

If you’ve ever seen the TV show Friends, you know how easy it is to tell what the characters are feeling. They express shock by widening their eyes and dropping their jaws. They show anger with narrow eyes and furrowed brows. You can read their faces like books, especially Ross’s.

But this isn’t how things work in the real world. It’s not true that our facial expressions always transparently communicate how we feel. For example, in one study referenced by Gladwell, scientists set up a deliberately surprising scenario for participants. The scientists then asked the participants to explain what emotions they thought their facial expressions were showing. Most people said afterwards that they thought they had demonstrated surprise, but only 5 percent of participants had the “typical” wide-eyed and dropped-jaw response we usually associate with surprise.

On a similar note, Gladwell recounts the story of Amanda Knox. When British student Meredith Kercher was murdered in 2001, the Italian police suspected Knox, her roommate, may have been the culprit.

Remarkably, that suspicion was founded only on Knox’s actions after the murder. While many of Kercher’s friends mourned her death, Knox behaved quite differently. She expressed physical affection for her boyfriend in public. When a friend of Kercher’s mentioned that they had hoped she didn’t suffer, Knox was abrasively blunt about what had happened. This didn’t look like grief.

But Knox wasn’t guilty. Her actions were only her way of expressing her emotions and dealing with her roommate’s death.

We tend to believe that people’s behaviors and demeanors  provide an authentic window into the way they feel on the inside. But the ways in which people express their internal feelings can vary greatly. Even the traits that we think are universal tend to actually be shaped by culture. If you met a stranger from a different culture and tried to assess their feelings based on their outward facial expressions, you could very well come away with a totally incorrect understanding of what was going on in their head. Perhaps that’s why facial recognition is notoriously unreliable when used in recruiting and has been correctly labeled as “digital snake oil.”

To prove the point further, Gladwell also cites the work of Sergio Jarillo, a Spanish anthropologist who studied how different cultures around the world interpret facial expressions. Jarillo showed photographs of peoples’ facial expressions to Spanish schoolchildren and to adults on the Trobriand Islands, a remote cluster of islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

When Jarillo showed a picture of someone smiling, 100 percent of Spanish children identified the person as happy, but only 58 percent of Trobriand adults said the same. When they saw someone scowling and scrunching up their eyebrows, 91 percent of Spanish children identified this as an expression of anger, yet only 7 percent of the Trobriand adults said the same. Twenty percent of the Trobrianders said the person was happy, 17 percent said they were sad, 30 percent said they were fearful, and 20 percent said they were disgusted. These results show there are not only differences of interpretation between cultures, but also within cultures.

If you think you’re good at getting a read on people when you interview them, you’re probably mistaken. Everybody you meet has their own unique experiences and perspectives, and it’s hard to tell what people are really thinking. Quite often, people are what Gladwell calls “mismatched,” meaning their outside demeanor does not match their internal feelings. Being mismatched doesn’t make someone any less suitable for the job, but the flawed intuitions of most hiring managers don’t account for that fact.

Defaulting to the Truth

Do you think you’d be able to spot a Cuban spy if you worked with one?

Gladwell tells the story of Ana Montes, who fed US secrets to Cuba while working for the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). It was only after Montes was found out that the DIA realized the red flags were there all along.

For example, Montes’s reports often contained Cuban viewpoints. She would sometimes take phone calls in the middle of a crisis. But nobody thought there was anything all that suspicious about this behavior at the time. Instead, people just saw her as a bit “weird,” a trait often celebrated in organizations today.

All recruiters face the same problem that DIA faced. According to the truth-default theory, developed by psychologist Timothy R. Levine, we tend to assume that other people are telling us the truth. It is not until the evidence of lying starts to pile up that we consider changing that assumption. One analysis of multiple studies into our ability to discern when someone is telling the truth found that people can accurately identify a liar only 54 percent of the time. This is only slightly better than random guessing.

So what do these examples tell us? To be good recruiters, do we have to be deeply suspicious? Instead of assuming everyone is telling the truth, should we assume everyone is lying?

Maybe not.

Context Counts

Since the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, 1,500 people have committed suicide by jumping from it. Gladwell recounts the work of psychologist Richard Seiden, who followed up with 515 people who attempted to jump but had somehow been prevented from doing so at the last moment. Of these, less than 5 percent went on to kill themselves by some other method.

Gladwell writes, “Overwhelmingly, the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge only at that given moment.” Gladwell’s point is that suicide, like any other behavior, is coupled with a specific situation or set of circumstances. By looking solely at the individual, we miss the cultural and environmental factors that play a key role in shaping their attitudes and behaviors.

The illusion of transparency and defaulting to truth — the two mistakes discussed above— have to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual. This third mistake — overlooking the coupling between the behavior and the situation — means we fail to understand the importance of the context in which a stranger is operating.

When we recruit, we often assume that someone who performed well in one environment will automatically perform well in another. We underestimate the link between behavior and environment. Hiring managers stress the importance of hiring top performers, but a candidate’s past performance cannot predict how well they will perform within your company’s cultural context.

When we make hiring decisions, we can’t stop at getting to know a person. We need to get to know their world as well. Each company culture is unique, and each team within the organization has a specific context, too. Measuring a person’s future ability by looking at their past performance is a well-trodden path to bad hiring decisions.

Hiring With Skepticism, Not Suspicion

Gladwell writes that, in a misapplication of a criminology study, American police forces were trained to use minor traffic violations — such as Bland’s failure to indicate — to uncover major crimes. In effect, police officers learned to pathologize a whole range of normal behaviors and exacerbate preexisting racial biases.

Gladwell concludes that American police officers made indiscriminate suspicion, focused disproportionately on Black Americans, their standard means of interacting with large swaths of the public. This mode of interaction fueled the tragic misunderstanding that led to Bland’s jailing and death.

So the answer here isn’t to treat candidates with suspicion — it’s to treat the answers we get in interviews with a healthy dose of skepticism. When bad hires don’t work out, we can often look back and see that the signs were there all along. If we look out for the signs ahead of time, discussing them with candidates instead of ignoring them, we can get to know potential hires even better — and make much better hiring decisions as a result.

It’s uncomfortable to admit that, as recruiters, we have no special ability when it comes to evaluating strangers, but it’s hard to argue against Gladwell’s evidence. Despite good intentions, misunderstandings occur all the time in recruitment. Unlike the Bland case, they are not fatal, but they still have consequences, including systemic hiring problems and the perpetuation of bias.

It’s easier to look away and decide this is a problem for someone else, but it’s actually a problem for all of us. Solving it will be uncomfortable, but necessary.

Chris Platts is the CEO of ThriveMap.

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