book review

Review of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company     

Published: 2019  Pages: 388   

Books that help me to better understand the complexities of being human, and sometimes the surprising reality that we’re more predictable than we think, are my favorite. My hope to learn more about being human and interacting with others is why I began reading Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.

Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?

How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?

Readers begin receiving some help answering these questions from Gladwell in Part 2, when he demonstrates how people are hardwired to default to truth. Even CIA agents, police officers and judges, people we often think should be experts at reading strangers and interpreting their intentions, are as susceptible to erroneous interpretations as the rest of us, especially if the subject of scrutiny is standing right in front of them. Gladwell analyzes how Bernie Madoff was able to pull of the largest Ponzi Scheme in history as well as the Jerry Sandusky trial to support his claims.

In Part 3, the author answers the second puzzle he posed to readers in Part 1. He demonstrates how people’s actions and behavior don’t always align with what’s happening internally. He uses the body language of facial expressions as well as analyzes the Amanda Knox case and that of Brock Turner to prove his point.

Readers are cautioned to “accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits” in Part 4. Gladwell assures readers that “the harder we word at getting strangers to reveal themselves, the more elusive they become.” This is supported by real world examples of trying to force the truth out of people by drastic measures such as waterboarding. When dramatic approaches are taken to pry the truth from someone, they may well lie due to the perceived existential threat. We are taught that “the right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”

Part 5 of the book delves into the relationship between context and behaviors, labeled as Coupling. We learn about the suicide of Sylvia Plath, a famous American poet and writer. Gladwell hands readers evidence to suggest that were the contextual reality surrounding Ms. Plath’s suicide different, she may not have succeeded in taking her own life. he argues the same is true for areas of high crime: the context in which it takes place matters and can be targeted in order to reduce crime in major cities such as Atlanta and Minneapolis.

In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell continues his ability to write books that are fascinating and easy to read. If you would like to improve your understanding of how we talk to strangers, or rather how to avoid traumatic experiences like that of Sandra Bland, I encourage you to read this book. It is one of the most relatable, insightful, and practical books I’ve picked up in ages. 

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