In his brilliant new book “Talking To Strangers”, Malcolm Gladwell takes an extremely close look at how we’re often deceived by others – until it’s too late.

He does this by recasting in vivid detail a wide range of famous cases, including the stories of the exposed Cuban spy Ana Montes, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and others.

Two of his central propositions, backed up by much evidence, are that we default to the belief that others are telling the truth, and also believe in a myth that tells us the expressions of others provide transparency towards true intentions and emotions. 

Interestingly, it has been exactly fifty years since another Canadian, the influential Sociologist Erving Goffman, published an essay called “Expression Games”, which examines this topic from a similar perspective, tales of spies included.

In the essay, Goffman breaks down strategic social interaction into a series of moves,  including what he calls naive moves, unwitting moves, covering moves, uncovering moves, and counter uncovering moves. 

First, naive and unwitting moves represent what Gladwell describes in his book as “transparency”, in that what is viewed is believed to be a transparent representation of what a person is consciously or not consciously expressing. For example, if I were to yell, shout, jump, or clap when a favorite athlete scored for what is known to be my favorite team, it could reasonably be viewed as an unwitting move or naive move by anyone observing. 

Covering moves, on the other hand, are strategic expressions that are meant for show, in that they attempt to hide or obscure what’s really happening. For example, when we smile warmly at someone we despise, put sensitive information out of sight, script our responses before an interview, or adjust the privacy settings on Social Media we’re acting in the mode of covering moves.  

Uncovering moves arrive once the game is on, and also after we have sensed that something is a foot. For instance, questions asked by lawyer, detective, or negotiator are uncovering moves in that they’re designed to learn the true intentions, knowledge, or motivations of another past what can be gathered from their apparently sincere professions. 

Finally, a counter uncovering move is used to negate or neutralize a previously perceived uncovering move before or after it happens. Think here of the baseball team who sends a false pinch-hitter to the batter’s box to confuse the other team, or the parent who puts out a false present knowing their child simply can’t resist taking a peek under the wrapping.

Ultimately, Goffman concludes his essay with the following passage:

In every social situation we can find a sense in which once participant will be an observer with something to gain from assessing expressions, and another will be a subject with something to gain from the process…which renders agents a little like us all and all of us a little like agents.

Like Gladwell, he believed that the real truth (if such a thing exists) is incredibly hard to detect, and for this reason we should take the observable expressions of others with more than a grain of salt – almost as if suspecting the other person was a secret agent because of this.

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