Why it is in your interest to get to know that stranger - Beaking Kenya News

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Saturday, 30 May 2020

Why it is in your interest to get to know that stranger

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The media has been using a phrase that it has not said what it really means. Contact tracing.
These two words have now become medical, social, cultural and even political.  Media presupposes that everyone knows what they mean. That they mean identifying and locating individuals who may have come into contact with an individual who has Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. How does one identify and locate all individuals that they came into contact with? 
Take the case of a policeman on patrol in the night, during the curfew. He meets several people. He speaks to them, and maybe arrests them because they aren’t wearing face masks. He touches them if they resist arrest. He sits in the same vehicle. He repeats this cycle over a month. Thereafter, he is diagnosed with Covid-19. 
How do we begin to trace all the individuals that this one person met, interacted with and probably infected? This is not a question about the effectiveness of contact tracing theory. It is about the near-impossibility of such a task.
GLADWELL'S THEORY
For we can only ‘hope’ that it is possible for individuals to remember where they were at some point in time, who they greeted, sat next to, shared a meal or a drink with, or sat on the same bench at the church with. 
But there is a theory out there that might help with this contact tracing. Malcolm Gladwell suggests it in his book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (Allen Lane, 2019). Gladwell’s narrative does not begin well. He writes about an incident involving Sandra Bland and Brian Encinia, one a recent graduate looking for a job, the other a policeman.
Sandra was Black. Encinia White. Encinia seeks to charge Sandra with failing to “signal lane change”. The conversation, Gladwell writes, is civil at the beginning till Bland lights a cigarette, after which Encinia asks her to “step out of the car”. Bland refuses. Encinia takes that as disobedience.
In the end, “Bland was arrested and jailed. Three days later, she committed suicide in her cell.”
This incident is the basis of Gladwell’s theory of why you should know people you would normally not be interested in. Remember the ‘you should know people’ phrase some years ago? Mockery was made of it. But the truth is that neither of the parties in that incident seemed to ‘know’ the other. 
On another note, we have had the usual problem of ‘discovering’ too late that we really don’t or didn’t know someone. This happens after the fact. After something has happened that shocks us.
For instance, many parents respond with disbelief when they are summoned to school and informed that their child is a truant. Many of us are reluctant to accept it when, for instance, police officers say that a neighbour is a criminal.
READ A STRANGER
How many times have we not been shocked to discover that the ‘polite, ever smiling, and courteous’ officemate is a very violent individual who regularly assaults the wife and his children?
Too many Kenyans respond incredulously when reports emerge that their local priest is involved in crime or underhand activities. 
Gladwell suggests in Talking to Strangers that the disbelief and the subsequent blaming of the ‘stranger’ may just be because we don’t know how to ‘read’ the stranger.
Consider that we generally teach our children these days ‘not to talk to strangers’. Yet when they become adults they will mostly interact, work and live with strangers. How and where will they get the skills to deal with strangers?
Using very many examples, from interrogation of terrorists, cases of double agents or fraudulent investors (the Madoff case) to  paedophile coaches, et cetera, Gladwell shows that people tend to default to truth and ignore suspicions about someone they know or even a stranger.
FIGHTING PANDEMIC
Experts argue that to default to truth (truth-default theory by Timothy Levine) is when one assumes that the other person they are dealing with or talking to is honest. For instance, parents who have a ‘troublesome’ teenager may not believe the child when he or she claims that their teacher is abusive.
Why? Because we generally don’t expect teachers to be abusive, just like we don’t think (or we would rather not believe that) priests could steal. 
So how do we do contact tracing in these circumstances? How do we ensure that we can trace all the individuals who had come into contact with a diseased or deceased individual?
How do we begin to believe (or disbelieve) one, for instance, when he or she says that they met so many or so few others? What about the ones who are supposed to have come into contact with this initial individual? Do we believe their story/stories? 
BE CIRCUMSPECT
In a world where truth – whatever we agree it to be – is in short supply, one has to learn to talk to strangers or work hard at ‘knowing the people one doesn’t know,’ according to Gladwell.
People have to figure out on their own how to detect potential fraud or theft. Individuals have to be permanently alert to the possibility of being ‘played’, as common parlance suggests.
But that doesn’t mean that we distrust people all the time, or that we be engaged in an endless game of detecting deception.
Communication and relationship between individuals would be damaged if we pursue this line. 
However, Gladwell’s message seems to be that although things aren’t always what they appear to be, one can try to be better prepared to evaluate them. For instance, how many people can interpret a smile – how many know that there are 43 distinctive muscle movements, which are assigned a number, called action unit, in the Facial Action Coding System, leading to such categories as the ‘Pan-Am smile’ (that ‘fakish’ flight attendant smile) or ‘Duchenne smile’, apparently the nearest to a ‘genuine smile’.
Note that the flight attendant smiling at you isn’t necessarily faking the smile; she may have had to practise it in order to offer all the passengers on a plane a smile, which is not an easy job.
Sometimes the knowledge and skills, or intuition, to ‘know strangers’ can be picked up by knowing more about other cultures and how those cultures train individuals to speak to strangers, as strange as it sounds. 

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