Talking to Strangers

{4.5/5} “We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.”

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2019

This book starts out with the story of Sandra Bland, a black woman who had a contentious conversation with a white police officer and killed herself in prison days later. It continues with the story of 2 famous strangers, Cort├ęs and Montezuma, and shows why they might have been very confused about what each other said. The goal of this book is to understand what went wrong in these cases of strangers meeting, and how to fix it.

Gladwell shows that we proceed from a faulty assumption. “We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable.” But this turns out not to be true. This is demonstrated by the stories of Chamberlain meeting Hitler, and a Cuban spy who went undetected for years in the US Defense Intelligence Agency.

It turns out that we have trouble telling when people are lying because we automatically assume people are telling the truth unless a threshold of doubts is reached.

On a show like Friends the characters look surprised when they’re surprised and look angry when they’re angry. But most people don’t show those same expressions in real life. You might be able to tell how your friend is feeling, but it’s very difficult for a stranger.

There’s also a discussion of how people change when they’re drunk. Contrary to popular opinion, Gladwell shows that what people become when they’re drunk is myopic — focused on what’s in front of them.

Some very serious topics are discussed — murder, sexual assault, torture, suicide. Police officers, judges, and FBI agents all misunderstand strangers just like regular people do.

One counterintuitive aspect is “coupling.” Gladwell shows that what people do depends on the context. For example, for years people committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Once barriers were put up, did people find some other way to commit suicide or did suicides go down? Then went down.

In talking to strangers, we must do so with humility. “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative — to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception — is worse.”

The inside front cover describes this as an “intellectual adventure.” That’s a great way to describe this and Gladwell’s other books.

In this particular case, I felt the ending was a bit abrupt. I’m not saying he should have necessarily had a solution for everything, but I think a bit more discussion about how to apply these ideas in our lives was in order.

I’ve read 6 of Gladwell’s books. I previously reviewed Blink.

This entry was posted on Saturday, November 30th, 2019 at 9:42 pm and is filed under Reviews of books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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