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Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell Book Review | JSW

Some years and several books ago, the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell moved from being a talented writer to a cultural phenomenon. He has practically invented a genre of nonfiction writing: the finely turned counterintuitive narrative underpinned by social science studies. Or if not the inventor then someone so closely associated with the form that it could fall under the title of Gladwellian.

His latest book, Talking to Strangers, is a typically roundabout exploration of the assumptions and mistakes we make when dealing with people we don’t know. If that sounds like a rather vague area of study, that’s because in many respects it is – there are all manner of definitional and cultural issues through which Gladwell boldly navigates a rather convenient path. But in doing so he crafts a compelling story, stopping off at prewar appeasement, paedophilia, espionage, the TV show Friends, the Amanda Knox and Bernie Madoff cases, suicide and Sylvia Plath, torture and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, before coming to a somewhat pat conclusion.

The tale begins with Sandra Bland, the African American woman who in July 2015 was stopped by a traffic cop in a small Texas town. She was just about to begin a job at Prairie View A&M University, when a police car accelerated up behind her. Doing what almost all of us would have done, she moved aside to let the car pass. And just like most of us in that situation, she didn’t bother indicating. It was on that technicality that the cop, Brian Encinia, ordered her to pull over.

Agitated and annoyed by Encinia’s ploy, Bland lit a cigarette to calm herself down. Encinia demanded that she put it out. When she protested, he instructed her to get out of the car and, after some minor resistance on Bland’s part, she was arrested and put in jail. Three days later, while still being held, she killed herself.

As Gladwell notes, it was one of several high-profile incidents in which the aggressive behaviour of police officers led to shocking deaths of African Americans, thus inspiring the Black Lives Matter movement. But why, Gladwell asks, did things go so badly wrong on that Texas highway? What were the misunderstandings that led to such a needless conclusion, and where did they come from?

There is a short answer to that question, and it goes something like this: in a misapplication of a criminology study, American police forces were trained to use minor traffic violations to uncover major crimes. In doing so they pathologised a whole range of normal behaviour and almost certainly exacerbated pre-existing racial bias.

But while worthy of attention, that’s not the kind of answer that makes for a riveting book, at least not in the hands of Gladwell. So he takes us on a digressive journey in which we are encouraged to examine our own behaviour and thought processes. What would you do, for example, if you witnessed what you thought was inappropriate interaction in a shower between a school sports coach and one of his pupils?

Our best self says we’d report it immediately to a person in authority. Then what does that person in authority do? Were you certain that you saw what you thought you saw? Is the person in authority certain of your certainty? And what about his or her superior?

In reality most of us have a predisposition to doubt out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. That’s the reason that parents were able to sit in the same room as Larry Nassar, a doctor with the US women’s gymnastic team, and not believe their children when, afterwards, they complained of Nassar’s intrusive examinations. Nassar turned out to be a profile abuser. But he was inadvertently protected by parents because, by and large, we assume people – especially those in positions of power – are acting in accordance with our expectations.

It’s the same reason that Bernie Madoff got away with his massive Ponzi scheme for so long: no one could believe the truth. And when some people did sound alarm bells, the authorities chose to dismiss their concerns because they seemed too incredible. It turns out that a large majority of us are pretty bad at spotting liars. Even supposed specialists in the field are not very good at it. A study of New York criminal judges found that they scored about as well as random selection when deciding who should and should not be granted bail.

But what does all this have to do with Bland? Well, when we try to systemise doubt, argues Gladwell, we empower our worst instincts. There are sound evolutionary social reasons why we’re inclined more towards trust than suspicion. If it was suspicion that formed the basis of all interaction between strangers, we would never have learned to cooperate on such a vast and complex scale.

But Gladwell concludes that American police traffic divisions made indiscriminate suspicion (which nonetheless focused disproportionately on African Americans) their standard means of interacting with large swaths of the public and the result was the tragic misunderstanding that led to Bland’s jailing.

In other words, the price of liberty for innocents such as Bland might be allowing the occasional prolific paedophile and con artist to escape early detection. I’m not convinced the two separate set of circumstances enjoy the relationship Gladwell ascribes to them. But his book is seldom less than a fascinating study of gullibility and the social necessity of trusting strangers.

Lessons from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers”

“Malcolm Gladwell could probably make a pencil sharpener interesting…”

Imagine what he can do with a topic far more interesting than pencil sharpeners – talking to strangers. Gladwell has made a career (in writing, and now in a podcast) of examining seemingly common things and presenting them in a new light. He is one of the few non-fiction writers to whose work the term “page turner” is applicable.

Market research as a profession is dependent on talking to strangers, so it would seem that this book would be a must-read for researchers. And it is. He examines the cases of several people in recent news stories (Bernie Madoff, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland) and uses theories from psychology to shed new light on how interactions between strangers can go wrong, and what we can do about it.

Why not see how that can be applicable to market research? Let’s start with the ideas.

Truth Default Theory

Developed by Professor Tim Levine, and built on related prior theories, the foundational idea is simple – people assume that others are basically honest. This assumption is evolutionarily useful, and is a societally positive trait, since it is usually true. It allows us to live our lives free of paranoia and leads to efficient communication.

The problem occurs when deception enters the conversation. When one person is operating under the truth default condition, it is quite easy for another person to lie and get away with it. This is especially true when the deceit is occasional, and not a consistent pattern. Most lies are usually detected after the fact with other external corroborating information. We are not good at detecting lies in real time.

That brings us to the second theory.

Transparency

There’s a TV show called “Lie to Me” about a group of consultants who specialized in lie detection. Psychologist Paul Ekman’s foundational work on facial micro-expressions of underlying emotions was used (with a good amount of artistic license) to create an interesting show. But the idea that a person’s behavior and demeanor are a true reflection of what they are truly feeling inside (i.e., that people are transparent) has since been refuted.

Considerable evidence shows that people are, in fact, not transparent. And the evidence shows that in casual interactions even experts (such as trained law enforcement specialists) do little better than chance at detecting lies. Contrary to general understanding, nonverbal cues are not very useful. Though some people are bad at lying, they are far outnumbered by those who are good at it, and even they are not especially common (i.e., people tend to be honest). Hence, going by a person’s demeanor or behavior is not an effective way of getting at deception.

So, what does all this mean for market research?

Market Research Implications

Let’s start by not being too strict about the term “lying”, and think of it more broadly as being less-than-honest, as that is more applicable in the market research context. It could be intentional (as with sensitive topics), but more likely unintentional, as in low-engagement respondents.

Let’s consider quantitative (surveys) and qualitative (say, IDIs) research separately. Truth-default Theory applies more to the former, and Transparency more to the latter.

Quantitative Research

If most people are honest most of the time, then it is reasonable to assume that most of the time respondents are being honest in answering surveys. According to Levine, “Deception becomes probable when the truth makes honest communication difficult or inefficient.”

This should be familiar to survey researchers. Long, difficult surveys make it hard for respondents to answer truthfully and efficiently – by providing a motive to deceive. In this case, deception means answering quickly at the expense of providing a thoughtful answer. This may not affect all respondents equally, and may not necessarily lead to inaccurate answers at all times, but the risk is certainly elevated.

The simple remedy is to keep the survey within the bounds of what is expected.

Research in psychology shows that there is a small proportion of people who are prolific liars. It’s not unreasonable to think that a small proportion of respondents belong to this category. Or, that a small proportion are looking to deceive by gaming the system. Hence it is essential to have quality control checks with multiple ways of detecting such respondents through their data signatures as well as other technological means.

But there doesn’t appear to be a reason to think that survey respondents are somehow different in such a dramatic way that the prevalence of deceivers is high enough to invalidate the results.

By using good quality-control measures on top of proper sampling, good questionnaire construction, and proper use of data analytic techniques, we can have confidence in the results provided by survey research.

So, in the case of survey research, its inherent nature limits the stranger problem, and what we learn is that we are already doing what we need to. We just need to do it diligently.

Qualitative Research Is a Different Story

The deception effects discussed above are significantly mitigated because of the interpersonal nature of qualitative research. But what makes qualitative research susceptible is the potential to read too much into the data (i.e., the Transparency factor). This can be a problem when the research is done in-person or through video, where the variety of non-verbal cues increases significantly.

Gladwell cites studies that show how easy it is for people to believe that they have read non-verbal cues correctly – when in reality they do no better than chance.

And, in most of qualitative research, it is a single person (such as moderator) working alone. This lone operator may not have the benefit of being cross-checked by an independent entity. Theory falsifiability is a foundation of good science, and this is a case where that can be unwittingly violated.

One way to overcome the problem is to have two or more moderators working independently, but that is a practically infeasible and expensive remedy. A better option would be to find a way that can act as a validation check on the qualitative expert.

Text analytics can be a such a resource.

An obvious advantage with text analytics is that which is usually seen as its big disadvantage – the inability to “read the room.” The algorithm only reacts to the text, not the intonation, demeanor, expression, accent, or any other contextual factor. This makes it basically immune to misleading cues.

Gladwell provides interesting examples that support this idea. For instance, when researchers compared judges and a machine learning algorithm on who was better at making bail decisions, the results were strongly in favor of the algorithm (measured in terms of future crime committed by released defendants and reduction in jail populations).

The judges generally acted individually and had full access to verbal and nonverbal cues, while the algorithm worked on just the data that was fed in. The point is not that judges should be replaced by algorithms, but about reducing bias in the system by using non-traditional means (keeping in mind that algorithms themselves could have biases in dealing with social problems, based on how they are developed).

But in market research, it’s not hard to see how a qualitative expert working in conjunction with an analyst wielding a machine learning algorithm could mitigate biases and develop higher quality outcomes.

In Summary

In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell explores how that act can go wrong with tragic consequences. He urges us to understand what happens when strangers meet, why it’s not easy to transform a stranger into a familiar figure – and urges caution and humility. But in the process, he helps market researchers understand how we may be able to overcome some of the biases inherent to our research approaches.

References

Gladwell, Malcolm, Talking to Strangers, Little, Brown & Company, 2019.

Levine, Timothy (2014), “Truth Default Theory: A Theory of Human Deception and Deception Detection”, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, May.

Kleinberg, Jon, Himabindu Lakkaraju, Jure Leskovec, Jens Ludwig and Sendhil Mullainathan (2018), “Human Decisions and Machine Predictions,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Feb.

Talking to Strangers

Paperback edition

Author Malcolm Gladwell
Country United States
Language English
Subject Psychology, sociology, popular culture
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Little Brown

Publication date

2019
Media type Print (paperback, hardcover), Audiobook (Audible), Ebook (Kindle)
Pages 400
ISBN 0316478520

ISBN 978-0316478526 (first hardcover edition)

Preceded by David and Goliath, 2013
Followed by The Bomber Mafia, 2021

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know is a nonfiction book written by Malcolm Gladwell and published by Little, Brown and Company (hardcover version) on September 10, 2019.[1] The audiobook version of the book follows Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast-style structure, using Gladwell’s narration, interviews, sound bites, and the theme song “Hell You Talmbout”.[2]

References[edit]

  1. ^ “Talking to Strangers”. Gladwell Books. 10 September 2019. Retrieved 2020-04-13.
  2. ^ a b Aquilina, Tyler (10 September 2019). “Why Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’ is an audiobook for the podcast generation”. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  3. ^ a b Anthony, Andrew (2019-10-20). “Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell review – fascinating study of why we misread those we don’t know”. The Observer. The Guardian. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  4. ^ Naylor, Brian (9 September 2019). “In ‘Talking To Strangers,’ Malcolm Gladwell Explores Why It’s So Hard To Do”. NPR.org. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  5. ^ Chozick, Amy (2019-08-30). “With ‘Talking to Strangers,’ Malcolm Gladwell Goes Dark”. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  6. ^ a b East, Ben (28 September 2019). “Review: Why ‘Talking To Strangers’ is probably Malcolm Gladwell’s darkest book to date”. The National. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  7. ^ a b c d e Gottlieb, Anthony (2019-09-10). “Malcolm Gladwell’s Advice When ‘Talking to Strangers’: Be Careful”. The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  8. ^ Barton, Chris (2019-09-07). “Review: What do Bernie Madoff and Sylvia Plath have in common? Malcolm Gladwell explains”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Tavris, Carol (2019-09-13). “‘Talking to Strangers’ Review: Fool Me Once, Shame on Me”. Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  10. ^ a b c Ferguson, Andrew (2019-09-10). “Malcolm Gladwell Reaches His Tipping Point”. The Atlantic. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  11. ^ “Micro review: ‘Talking to Strangers’ by Malcolm Gladwell – Times of India”. The Times of India. 5 October 2019. Retrieved 2020-04-07.
  12. ^ Naylor, Brian (September 9, 2019). “In ‘Talking To Strangers,’ Malcolm Gladwell Explores Why It’s So Hard To Do”. NPR.org. Retrieved 2023-12-16.

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388 pages, Hardcover

First published September 10, 2019

“I’ve never been a writer who’s looked to persuade his readers; I’m more interested in capturing their interest and curiosity.”

We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. 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.If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.

In all of these cases, the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong.

A young woman and a young man meet at a party, then proceed to tragically misunderstand each other’s intentions – and they’re drunk.

Campus drinking culture. That’s what we’re speaking out against? You think that’s what I’ve spent the past year fighting for? Not awareness about campus sexual assault, or rape, or learning to recognize consent. Campus drinking culture…. You realize, having a drinking problem is different than drinking and then forcefully trying to have sex with someone? Show men how to respect women, not how to drink less.

But that’s not quite right, is it? …Brock Turner was asked to do something of crucial importance that night – to make sense of a stranger’s desires and motivations. That is a hard task for all of us under the best circumstances.

Those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure.

“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.”

We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. 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. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.Talking to Strangers is a book with a bold premise: trying to explain why a young black woman named Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation in rural Texas, arrested and jailed, and why she committed suicide in her cell three days later. As with his other books, Mr. Gladwell attempts this explanation through an exploration of psychological and social science research.

In the weeks I spent listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, I learned that lobsters have serotonin, that Elvis Presley suffered from parapraxis and that Mr. Gladwell adheres to a firm life rule that he drink only five liquids: water, tea, red wine, espresso and milk.

On the afternoon I met the author and journalist , I had just listened to an episode in which he interviews an intimidating guest. His audio recorder malfunctions, and he has to sprint to Staples to get a replacement. “I was embarrassed,” Mr. Gladwell confides in the podcast. “I worried that he would think I was pathetic.” It sounded mortifying. And yet when I sat down to interview Mr. Gladwell, at the kitchen table of his Manhattan apartment , I went ahead and trusted my own recorder.

This is what Mr. Gladwell, in his new book, “Talking to Strangers,” calls “default to truth.” Human beings are by nature trusting — of people, technology, everything. Often, we’re too trusting, with tragic results. But if we didn’t suppress thoughts of worst-case scenarios, we’d never leave the house. We definitely wouldn’t go on dating apps or invest in stocks or let our kids take gymnastics.

“It would be impossible!” Mr. Gladwell said, throwing up his hands, almost giddy at imagining the social paralysis that would occur if we were a less trusting species. “Everyone would withdraw their money from banks,” he continued. “In fact, the whole internet exists because people default to truth. Nothing is secure! They are hacking into the cloud as we speak!”

In the weeks I spent listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, I learned that lobsters have serotonin, that Elvis Presley suffered from parapraxis and that Mr. Gladwell adheres to a firm life rule that he drink only five liquids: water, tea, red wine, espresso and milk.

On the afternoon I met the author and journalist , I had just listened to an episode in which he interviews an intimidating guest. His audio recorder malfunctions, and he has to sprint to Staples to get a replacement. “I was embarrassed,” Mr. Gladwell confides in the podcast. “I worried that he would think I was pathetic.” It sounded mortifying. And yet when I sat down to interview Mr. Gladwell, at the kitchen table of his Manhattan apartment , I went ahead and trusted my own recorder.

This is what Mr. Gladwell, in his new book, “Talking to Strangers,” calls “default to truth.” Human beings are by nature trusting — of people, technology, everything. Often, we’re too trusting, with tragic results. But if we didn’t suppress thoughts of worst-case scenarios, we’d never leave the house. We definitely wouldn’t go on dating apps or invest in stocks or let our kids take gymnastics.

“It would be impossible!” Mr. Gladwell said, throwing up his hands, almost giddy at imagining the social paralysis that would occur if we were a less trusting species. “Everyone would withdraw their money from banks,” he continued. “In fact, the whole internet exists because people default to truth. Nothing is secure! They are hacking into the cloud as we speak!”

Review

Book Reviews

In ‘Talking To Strangers,’ Malcolm Gladwell Explores Why It’s So Hard To Do

Talking to Strangers

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Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t reference a famous line delivered by a prison chain-gang overseer to the character played by Paul Newman in the classic 1967 film Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

But it’s one of the few communication breakdowns he overlooks in Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, a sweeping survey tour of miscommunication, through stories ripped from the headlines and history books. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes meandering journey. Gladwell’s premise in these tales is that humans “default to truth” — that is, we tend to take on face value the things people tell us, even if we should know better.

For instance, take Neville Chamberlain believing Hitler’s promise that all the Fuhrer really wanted was the Sudetenland, the ethnic-German part of Czechoslovakia, and had no designs on Poland or the rest of Europe. Chamberlain believed this in part, Gladwell writes, because Hitler gave the British prime minister “the double handshake that he reserves for specially friendly demonstrations.”

Chamberlain was one of the few European leaders to have actually sat down with Hitler prior to the outbreak of World War II, and he did so on three occasions. Chamberlain, says Gladwell, “was acting on the same assumption that we all follow in making sense of strangers. We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable.” As Gladwell concludes, “History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain.”

Gladwell begins and ends Talking to Strangers with a smaller-scale instance of miscommunication with tragic consequences. In July 2015, Sandra Bland, a young African American woman, was stopped by police near the campus of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, where she had just gotten a job.

The Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who pulled over Bland, Brian Encinia, described as “white, short dark hair, 30 years old,” stopped her for allegedly changing lanes without signaling. The routine traffic stop escalated as Encinia told Bland to extinguish her cigarette. They exchanged increasingly hostile words, and Encinia eventually told her to get out of her car, threatening “I will light you up” if she failed to heed his order. Bland complied and was taken to jail. Three days later, she was found hanged in her cell.

Gladwell analyzes the policing policy that indirectly led to Bland’s death, the result of an aggressive theory developed to stem crime in troubled big-city neighborhoods, in part by pulling over anyone suspected of even the most minor infractions as a premise to search their cars for weapons or drugs.

It was not an appropriate tactic for a quiet rural college neighborhood in the middle of the day, Gladwell argues, “stopping someone who should never have been stopped, drawing conclusions that should never have been drawn.” Gladwell writes that the death of Bland “is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.”

Gladwell is an old hand when it comes to talking and writing about strangers and others. His previous books, including The Tipping Point and Blink, have been huge bestsellers. His podcast, Revisionist History, rates among the top 10 downloads. Gladwell is an engaging storyteller, and in Talking to Strangers, he tells lots of stories. We delve into the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal at Penn State University, the trial of Amanda Knox in Italy, even Sylvia Plath’s suicide. The villains are many, ranging from Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, whose inability to communicate with Aztec ruler Montezuma II led to Montezuma’s death and the eventual end of the Aztec empire; to Fidel Castro, who planted a Cuban mole into the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which the agency, despite troubling warning signs, failed to detect for over a decade; to Bernie Madoff, who conned his way to the top of a massive Ponzi scheme involving some of the biggest institutions on Wall Street.

As with the Cuban mole at the DIA, there was no shortage of warning signs that something was off about Madoff’s claims of success in investing his clients’ money. Some in the Securities and Exchange Commission, which oversees the hedge fund industry, were suspicious. Madoff claimed an investment strategy linked to the stock market, Gladwell writes, “which meant like any other market-based strategy his returns ought to go up and down as the market went up and down. But Madoff’s returns were rock steady — which defied all logic.”

One SEC investigator, Gladwell writes, went to see Madoff to get an explanation. Madoff’s answer was that “essentially, he could see around corners; he had an infallible ‘gut feel’ for when to get out of the market just before a downswing and back into the market just before an upswing.”

The SEC investigator reported to his supervisor, who also had doubts but, Gladwell writes, “not enough doubts.” They defaulted to truth, as Gladwell says, and the fraud continued.

But whittling some situations down to “failure to communicate” may be too much simplification in some cases. Gladwell devotes a chapter to the 2015 sexual assault of Chanel Miller, who just last week revealed her identity, by Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner. Both had been drinking heavily at a Stanford frat house party before the assault. Gladwell asserts that “so long as we refuse to acknowledge what alcohol does to the interaction between strangers, that evening … will be repeated again. And again.” But here, Gladwell’s theory is a tough sell. Miller was unconscious, and her assault was much more than simple miscommunication. Turner was found guilty of three felonies and sentenced to six months in jail (he was released after serving three).

And reaching back to the Sandra Bland case, can we really disregard racism? Does it really just come down to two strangers who don’t know how to communicate with each other?

Gladwell’s journey through the annals of miscommunication isn’t without a few more minor rocky detours too. He bogged down this reader with a detailed dissection of an episode of the 1990s sitcom Friends to make a point about how we rely on people’s facial expressions when it comes to reading their inner feelings and intentions. Whatever one thinks of Rachel, Chandler and the gang, I’m not sure to what extent their actions and reactions on set should be used as a guide to actual human behavior.

And what’s the lesson here? How do we change our credulous behavior, or should we? How can we read people and trust strangers to act right by us? Making sense of the stranger, Gladwell writes, “requires humility and thoughtfulness and a willingness to look beyond the stranger, and take time and place and context into account.”

It may be good advice generally — Gladwell mostly shows us — and it is all too often ignored throughout history. But some situations are just more complicated than that.

I had this book on the shelf for some time but was only inspired to pick it up when I felt the need to be connected with my fellow humans more than ever. Understanding, compassion and faith in each other seem so critical but yet so elusive when we are literally living at a distance from our loved ones, colleagues and customers.

Malcom Gladwell’s books get described as everything-you-know-is-wrong page turners, and Talking To Strangers certainly fits the bill. It leaves you questioning the assumptions and judgements you make about others; we can learn a lot from its lessons.

Gladwell examines the ways we misinterpret and fail to communicate with each other. He presents us with compelling case studies and fascinating research that show just how bad humans are at spotting deception, even at close quarters, and how wrong we are to think we are good judges of character.

There are colorful characters: tragic poets, Cuban double agents, charismatic conmen and catastrophic misjudgments. The book’s introduction and final chapter are about Sandra Bland, the African American woman who was stopped by a white highway patrolman in small-town Texas in 2015 and was found hanged in her cell three days later. At this moment in time, there is much to learn from Gladwell’s thoughtful analysis of Sandra Bland’s arrest and much that we can apply in our business interactions.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell Book Review | JSW
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell Book Review | JSW

Talking to Strangers: Top 5 takeaways

We should stop assuming and realize no one’s transparent

Transparency is the idea that visible behavior and demeanor provide an authentic, reliable window into the way someone is feeling inside. It’s a seemingly common-sense assumption that turns out to be an illusion. We believe we can make sense of a stranger through observation. Spoiler: we can’t. Research shows humans are abysmal at judging each other and face-to-face contact actually makes this worse because we put such faith in these impressions.

We are incapable of spotting deception

We judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Despite credible evidence, investigators failed to spot the billion-dollar deception of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. A seasoned financial journalist who interviewed Madoff recalls, “it was almost impossible to believe he was a complete fraud”.

We think we can judge people and what throws us are mismatches – honest people who act shifty; liars who act honest. Tim Levine’s research into deception detection shows even experienced law enforcement agents are terrible at identifying who’s telling the truth, especially with ‘sincere acting liars’. In Levine’s research only 14% of those cases were correctly spotted as liars.

Behavior is tied to unseen circumstances

We place so much emphasis on our belief in transparency that we ignore the context a stranger is operating in. And of course, we likely don’t know much about those circumstances. We try to make sense of a person’s behavior as simply an individual but ignoring the context for their behavior can lead to serious, and sometimes catastrophic misunderstandings.

The real-life application that came to mind for me was how this can help us when handling workplace conflict. Drawing on Gladwell’s insight, instead of responding to those visual cues of demeanor, body language and facial expression in a moment of perceived conflict, we take a moment, step back and remember that we are not in full possession of the facts. Give the interaction some space and distance to really reflect on the wider context.

We need to assume truth for society to function

Humans default to ‘truth’. As a rule, we believe someone even when we have doubts about them until there are enough red flags to push us beyond doubt. And we shouldn’t give ourselves a hard time about that – defaulting to truth makes sense and assuming truthfulness is important for society to function. Lies are rare and abandoning trust as the default position would be tragic.

… but sometimes a ‘Holy Fool’ is useful

The Holy Fool is an archetype from folklore – the outcast truth teller free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted. Like the small boy who calls out the king’s nakedness in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Every culture has its own version of the Holy Fool and they serve a useful role. What sets the Holy Fool apart is a different sense of the possibility of deception. They don’t default to trust. Sometimes we need a Holy Fool on the team to be the naysayer, the boundary breaker and the burster of over-optimistic bubbles.

Talking to Strangers: Top 5 quotes

  • “We think we can see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues… we are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.”
  • “You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.”
  • “We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty people who give convoluted explanations aren’t.”
  • “Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative – to abandon trust… is worse.”
  • “We should accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers.”

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If you’re using intuition rather than real, solid feedback to understand your customers better, Gladwell’s book is a cautionary tale. Give Customer Thermometer a spin today, and get closer than ever to what customers and employees really think. Try it free, no credit card needed:



TALKING TO STRANGERS




What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know


By Malcolm Gladwell

Perhaps one shouldn’t always feel bad about getting someone utterly wrong. Sometimes one is bested by a master. In November 2004, I went to interview Bernard Madoff for The Economist and was won over. I told friends that I trusted this quiet, thoughtful man more than I trusted any of the dozen Wall Street loudmouths I’d talked to that year. It emerged in 2008 that he had been one of the biggest con men in history.

Madoff is one of the central figures in “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know,” by Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist who turns social science reportage into best sellers. The book’s introduction and final chapter are about Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was stopped by a white highway patrolman in small-town Texas in 2015 and was found hanged in her cell three days later. She had been arrested because her encounter with the patrolman escalated into a confrontation. Her death, Gladwell writes, “is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.”

Among the other recent cases of true crime and true innocence Gladwell addresses are those of Jerry Sandusky, a college football coach and abuser of children, whose offenses, like those of Madoff, long escaped exposure; and Amanda Knox, an American student who spent nearly four years in Italian custody after a murder in Perugia because prosecutors mistook youthful American goofiness for guilt. We also read of Cuban double agents, exaggerated confessions under torture, Montezuma’s contact with the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519, misunderstandings between drunken students about sexual consent, and misguided British hopes in 1938 that Hitler could be appeased. And we are treated to lashings of nerdish criminological data.

The threads that connect Gladwell’s somewhat rambling material have to do with misreading people — mistaking their intentions, drawing erroneous conclusions from their demeanors and believing their false claims of innocence. Yet despite its title, the book is not really about strangers. True, Bland and the patrolman did not know each other, and some of Gladwell’s stories involve collisions between alien cultures. But the deceptions of Madoff, Sandusky and others discussed here — including Ana Montes, an analyst at the United States Defense Intelligence Agency who spied for Cuba — were practiced not only on strangers, but also on people they knew. Lies, misunderstandings and escalating confrontations have, after all, been known to occur even within marriages.



TALKING TO STRANGERS




What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know


By Malcolm Gladwell

Perhaps one shouldn’t always feel bad about getting someone utterly wrong. Sometimes one is bested by a master. In November 2004, I went to interview Bernard Madoff for The Economist and was won over. I told friends that I trusted this quiet, thoughtful man more than I trusted any of the dozen Wall Street loudmouths I’d talked to that year. It emerged in 2008 that he had been one of the biggest con men in history.

Madoff is one of the central figures in “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know,” by Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist who turns social science reportage into best sellers. The book’s introduction and final chapter are about Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was stopped by a white highway patrolman in small-town Texas in 2015 and was found hanged in her cell three days later. She had been arrested because her encounter with the patrolman escalated into a confrontation. Her death, Gladwell writes, “is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.”

Among the other recent cases of true crime and true innocence Gladwell addresses are those of Jerry Sandusky, a college football coach and abuser of children, whose offenses, like those of Madoff, long escaped exposure; and Amanda Knox, an American student who spent nearly four years in Italian custody after a murder in Perugia because prosecutors mistook youthful American goofiness for guilt. We also read of Cuban double agents, exaggerated confessions under torture, Montezuma’s contact with the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519, misunderstandings between drunken students about sexual consent, and misguided British hopes in 1938 that Hitler could be appeased. And we are treated to lashings of nerdish criminological data.

The threads that connect Gladwell’s somewhat rambling material have to do with misreading people — mistaking their intentions, drawing erroneous conclusions from their demeanors and believing their false claims of innocence. Yet despite its title, the book is not really about strangers. True, Bland and the patrolman did not know each other, and some of Gladwell’s stories involve collisions between alien cultures. But the deceptions of Madoff, Sandusky and others discussed here — including Ana Montes, an analyst at the United States Defense Intelligence Agency who spied for Cuba — were practiced not only on strangers, but also on people they knew. Lies, misunderstandings and escalating confrontations have, after all, been known to occur even within marriages.

This post levies specific criticisms at Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Although the book is an entertaining read, it’s riddled with analytical flaws. In my full summary, I mentioned that Gladwell is a very good writer but not much of a thinker. He’ll present an interesting idea that is, at best, a theory, with the conviction of a campaigning politician.

In this post, I’ll delve into the key criticisms I had with Gladwell’s analysis by reference to the specific examples he used. You can read my full summary of Talking to Strangers for more context.

Jerry Sandusky

In 2001, one assistant coach saw Jerry Sandusky, another assistant coach, showering with a young boy in a locker room. The first assistant coach reported it to the head coach, who in turn reported it his boss, Tim Curley. Curley then reported it to a senior administrator, Gary Schultz and Schultz reported it to the school’s president, Graham Spanier.

However, when the incident was reported further up the chain it was described as “horseplay” and “horsin’ around”, not as sodomy or sexual assault. Curley and Schultz were both convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and failure to report child abuse. Spanier was fired and eventually convicted of child endangerment.

Gladwell thinks that people treated Spanier (and possibly Curley and Schultz) unfairly. He agrees that they made a mistake in retrospect in defaulting to truth (i.e. believing what people say at face value). But Gladwell argues that is a fundamentally human tendency and is not a crime. He writes:

We think we want our guardians to be alert to every suspicion. We blame them when they default to truth.

I agree that defaulting to truth is generally reasonable. In fact, it’s baked into the law — the standard of proof in criminal cases is beyond reasonable doubt. But that doesn’t mean we should just shrug and say “oh well, default to truth” whenever people drop the ball.

Defaulting to truth can, and probably should, be a crime if possible sexual abuse of a child is involved. It is reasonable for society to expect people to be more suspicious when the stakes are high, particularly where those people are adults entrusted with the care of vulnerable children. While we may not want our guardians to be alert to every suspicion but we may want them to be more alert to suspicions involving sexual abuse.

Larry Nassar

Gladwell used the Larry Nassar case as an example of defaulting to truth (the tendency to assume people are being truthful). He claims this was why most parents didn’t believe Larry Nassar was doing anything wrong, even when their daughters told them otherwise.

But not believing your daughter is being molested isn’t defaulting to truth. If it was, why wouldn’t parents default to believing their daughters? Their thought process was more likely to be a mixture of:

  1. not wanting to believe something terribly disturbing had happened to your daughter, especially while you were present, and
  2. taking into account base rates. Objectively, it’s more likely that there was a misunderstanding than that your daughter’s physician repeatedly molested her. The vast majority of physicians aren’t child molesters, but honest mistakes happen all the time — and young children often misunderstand things.

That’s not to say defaulting to truth isn’t a thing — I’m sure that humans do default to truth. Annie Duke explains this tendency much more compellingly. Gladwell, on the other hand, seems to conflate defaulting to truth with applying base rates (which is a different thing) and presumption of innocence. It’s quite surprising that Gladwell didn’t mention the legal presumption of innocence at all when discussing “default to truth” in cases of criminal misconduct. It’s a rather glaring omission.

Brock Turner

This case was extremely high profile and involved a sexual assault at Stanford. Brock Turner, a promising young swimmer, was found thrusting on top of an unconscious and partially-naked woman outside a frat party. Despite being found guilty of sexual assault, he received a sentence of only 6 months in jail, with 3 years of probation, sparking widespread public outrage. He ended up serving just 3 months.

Let’s do the good stuff first. On one hand, I appreciate that Gladwell is not afraid to voice an unpopular opinion on controversial issues. And I think he is right to point out that college drinking culture is unhealthy, can make it difficult to determine consent, and contributes to many sexual assaults. Not only does alcohol make it difficult for people to determine consent in the moment, it also makes it harder to work out what happened later (e.g. in court) because of its effect on people’s memories.

Sexual assault cases are hard

Now onto the bad stuff. Sexual assault cases involving disputes over consent are hard. Given Gladwell’s general lack of rigour, proclivity for stating opinions as fact, and tendency to shoehorn things to fit his theories, I wish he had steered clear of this one.

The main reason sexual assault cases are hard is not because, as Gladwell suggests, it is so difficult for the people involved to work out if the other person is consenting. Again, people can always, you know, ask. No, the reason these cases are hard is because there are usually no witnesses involved, so it comes down to the credibility of people giving two differing accounts. The man typically gives evidence about how well things were going and how all signs suggested she was consenting. The woman will usually say that she didn’t consent, felt uncomfortable or maybe scared, and tried to make that known.

It’s hard for a case to reach the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” when it’s just one person’s word against another. And the whole judicial process, particularly cross-examination, is pretty traumatic for victims of sexual assault. It’s safe to say that most sexual assaults will not result in a conviction. Many assault victims don’t even bother pressing charges because they just want to put the matter behind them, don’t want to go through the cross-examination process, and understand that the odds are stacked against them. That’s why these cases are hard.

But the Turner case was uncharacteristically easy for a sexual assault case

The Brock Turner case was one of the worst possible cases he could’ve used to illustrate this point. Gladwell deliberately picked a well-known and infamous case. He knew it would get people’s interest and draw attention to his book. Unfortunately, by using the Turner case to illustrate his point, Gladwell suggests that Turner made a reasonable attempt to work out if Chanel Miller was consenting but he made a mistake. Based on the facts in that case, that’s just wrong. Miller was unconscious. Independent witnesses testified that they saw her unconscious. And, legally, an unconscious person cannot consent to sex.

This was not a case of mistaken belief in consent. It was a case about a guy taking advantage of an unconscious woman, not caring if she consented.

I should also point out that in California, as in many other jurisdictions, an actual and reasonable belief in consent is a valid legal defence. Even if that belief was mistaken. Gladwell’s failure to point this out is a glaring omission. He leaves you with the impression that Turner was held to unreasonably high standards:

Brock Turner was asked to do something of crucial importance that night – to make sense of a stranger’s desires and motivations. That is a hard task for all of us under the best circumstances, because the assumption of transparency we rely on in those encounters is so flawed. Asking a drunk and immature nineteen-year-old to do that, in the hypersexualized chaos of a frat party, is an invitation to disaster.

Society wasn’t asking Turner to “make sense of [Miller’s] desires and motivations. It merely asks that he not have sex with an unconscious person. It’s really not that difficult. Here’s a quote from Miller’s victim impact statement:

Brock stated, “At no time did I see that she was not responding. If at any time I thought she was not responding, I would have stopped immediately.” Here’s the thing; if your plan was to stop only when I became unresponsive, then you still do not understand. You didn’t even stop when I was unconscious anyway! Someone else stopped you. Two guys on bikes noticed I wasn’t moving in the dark and had to tackle you. How did you not notice while on top of me?

The Turner case was not a hard case. It was actually an unusually easy case.

The Turner case was absolutely the wrong case to use

Gladwell’s overall point was that it can be really hard to read strangers (i.e. work out if they’re consenting or not), and that alcohol makes that task harder. In itself, that is not an unreasonable point. But that point would have been stronger in another case — possibly the Benjamin Bree case, which Gladwell mentioned in the same book, and which resulted in an acquittal. (Although again, I want to point out that people can always ask! These are not cases like Hitler or Madoff where the person is actively lying to you.)

Coupling

Coupling is the idea that behaviours are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions. Gladwell argues that crime is coupled with particular locations while suicide is coupled with suicide methods. I don’t disagree with Gladwell’s general point that context is important. But his analysis is pretty dodgy.

Crime hotspots

According to Gladwell, crime is linked to specific places and contexts, and increasing police presence in those areas can reduce crime in a city, rather than simply displacing it. However, there are some issues with this analysis. For one, Gladwell doesn’t distinguish between different types of crime, some of which may be more location-specific than others. For instance, domestic violence may occur repeatedly in a single home, but evicting the offender may not necessarily stop the violence.

Another criticism of Gladwell’s argument is that he doesn’t address the long-term effects of increasing police presence on crime. He cites a study by Weisburd which found that increasing police presence in a prostitution hotspot reduced prostitution by two-thirds. While this may seem like a significant achievement, it’s unclear what happened to the women who left prostitution. Did they successfully transition to other occupations? And what about the demand for prostitution? Did other women simply fill the void left by those who left? These questions are not addressed at all (not even to mention whether Weisburd discussed them).

In summary, while Gladwell’s argument has some validity, it oversimplifies the complexity of crime and overlooks the potential long-term consequences of police interventions.

Suicide

Gladwell claims that suicide is coupled with suicide methods, such that we can reduce suicide rates by removing some suicide methods. Now, I agree with Gladwell that not everyone who attempts suicide once will necessarily find a way to kill themselves. And making it harder for people to kill themselves generally sounds like a good thing.

However, to support his claim, Gladwell refers to this chart showing suicide rates between 1900 to 1990:

He argues that suicide rates in England and Wales “plung[ed] down” when town gas (a popular suicide method) was phased out of home ovens from the late 1960s. (I note that, instead of adding a caveat that correlations do not imply causation, Gladwell frequently encourages you to infer causation!)

There are two problems with this:

  • The Y-axis for the graph starts from 70, not 0, making the fluctuations look larger than they actually are. The rate Gladwell claims is “plunging down” seems to be a decline from around 120 suicides per million to around 80 per million. A significant drop of 33%, sure, but not as big as it looks in the graph.
  • More importantly, the UK only started phasing out town gas from 1967. Suicide rates had already fallen to around 90 per million by this time. Most of the decline from the early 1960s peak seems to have occurred before 1967. So what’s the reason for that?

Finally, Gladwell used the examples of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (who both commited suicide) to illustrate his point. By Gladwell’s own description, both were fascinated with the idea of suicide and seemed determined to kill themselves. Both made multiple suicide attempts. As with the Brock Turner case, Gladwell seems to have picked the example because it was famous, not because it was a good example.

Sandra Bland

In 2015, a police officer, Brian Encinia, pulled over Sandra Bland, a young, black woman, for failing to signal when changing lanes. The altercation gets heated and the officer ends up arresting Bland when she refuses to get out of her car. Three days later, she kills herself in custody. Many people saw this as a case of a rogue or racist cop bullying a black woman just because he could.

Gladwell disagrees. He greatly plays down Encinia’s responsibility in this case and blames his training instead. I’m not sure if he was right to do so. For example, he seems to accept at face value Encinia’s claims that he was scared Bland might have a weapon. But this was a self-serving claim, so deserved more scrutiny than Gladwell gave it.

Surprisingly, Gladwell does not focus much on race when discussing this case. He mentions in passing the fact that police stop black people more often. A lot of the analysis about demeanour clues and race is, for some reason, in a very long footnote rather than in the main text.

Another glaring omission is Gladwell’s failure to explain what the law in Texas was. Could Encinia legally order Bland to step out of her car? He certainly seemed to think so, while Bland certainly did not. If Encinia did have that right, perhaps Bland’s death could have been avoided had she known. She may have complied quickly and not been arrested at all. And if Encinia knew he did not have that right, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so aggressive toward Bland. So maybe it was a mistaken understanding of police powers (either by Encinia or Bland) that sadly caused Bland’s death.

Conclusion

Overall, the analysis in Talking to Strangers is superficial and flawed. Gladwell cherry-picks his examples, omits relevant facts, and fails to anticipate and respond to counterarguments. Worse, he doesn’t even cherry-pick the right examples to support his claims — just the most famous, attention-grabbing ones. As with most of Gladwell’s books, Talking to Strangers can be an entertaining read, but one you should approach with a healthy dose of scepticism.

If, despite my above criticisms, you still you want to get Talking to Strangers, you can do so at: Amazon | Kobo <– These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you buy through these links. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

Do you agree with my criticisms or think I’m being too harsh on Gladwell? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, you may also wish to check out:

  • My full summary of Talking to Strangers
  • Book Summary: Calling Bullshit by Bergstrom and West, to help you identify other cases of shaky analysis and misleading claims
  • Criticisms of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

Believe it or not, people aren’t totally transparent to one another. Liars can seem honest, spies can seem loyal, nervous people can seem guilty. People’s facial expressions are not a reliable guide to what they are thinking. Or, to put it in Hamlet’s words, one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

If any of this is surprising to you, then you are in exalted company, because it also surprises Malcolm Gladwell, whose job it is to be puzzled by banalities and then replace them, after a great pseudo-intellectual circumambulation, with banalities. Gladwell affects to find it baffling how we can get people we don’t know so wrong. So he calls it “the stranger problem”, and pretends that it explains everything.

It explains, for example, the fate of a young black woman named Sandra Bland. Gladwell introduces her by remarking that she was “tall and striking, with a personality to match”, which is just the kind of deft pen-portrait that has earned him a reputation as a brilliant writer for the best magazines. In Texas in 2015, Bland was pulled over for a traffic infraction by a cop named Brian Encinia. The encounter rapidly degenerated as the hostile and suspicious state trooper forced her out of the car, called for backup, and had her arrested. Days later Bland was found dead in her cell.

You will guess that there is a counterintuitive take coming: Gladwell wants us to feel sorry for the cop. “Think about how hard it was” for him, he pleads. “Sandra Bland was not someone Brian Encinia knew from the neighborhood or down the street … They were strangers to each other.” Other policemen stop strangers all the time without bullying them and hauling them in, but never mind that now. Encinia, as Gladwell credulously interprets his subsequent statements, was “terrified” of this young woman, who might after all have been planning to burn him with her cigarette. It’s very difficult, don’t you see, not to be a brute.

What else is it difficult not to be? In Gladwell’s world of large ideas, it may also be hard not to be a rapist when you’re drunk. He brings his forensic empathy to the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford college student who was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on the ground outside a dorm building. Such a difficult case! Gladwell explains sorrowfully that consuming large amounts of alcohol causes mental “myopia”, where one is unable to consider the long-term consequences of one’s actions. It’s just too bad, he concludes, that these careless students both got so drunk at a party that the man could “tragically misunderstand” the woman’s intentions. You may object that plenty of men are able to get blattered without raping anyone, but that seems to be beyond Malcolm Gladwell.

To be sure, this book is not exclusively about standing up for the unlucky men who accidentally do bad things just because the “stranger problem” is so lamentably intractable. It is also littered with historical and pop-cultural anecdotes. Why did Chamberlain think Hitler sincerely wanted peace? Such a “puzzle” leads us through stories about Cuban espionage, predatory paedophiles, the Bernie Madoff fraud, Sylvia Plath’s suicide, the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the TV show Friends. “Maybe real life isn’t like Friends,” Gladwell suggests, momentously.

Gladwell bases his book on a single notion called “truth-default theory”. We tend to assume that other people are telling the truth, which is the basis of trust and social cooperation, so liars are hard to spot. Not mentioned here is the well-known opposite phenomenon: that, far from defaulting to truth, we believe only the information that fits with our preconceived biases. Both ideas are right, because the world is complicated, but Gladwell’s job is to make it seem simple.

Another teachable story here is that of Amanda Knox, the American student in Perugia who was imprisoned for murder (and later acquitted) because her behaviour after the crime seemed extremely odd. Gladwell assures us that weird behaviour is not reliable evidence of guilt. There is a psychological phenomenon called “the illusion of asymmetric insight”: we consider ourselves opaque to others, while thinking that other people are easy to read correctly. “If I can convince you of one thing in this book,” he announces dramatically, “let it be this: Strangers are not easy.”

Perhaps if we can all become convinced of this novel truth, we will stop harassing and raping one another for good. If only someone like Shakespeare had encoded the lesson centuries ago in some memorable form, like, I don’t know, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.” In the absence of such poetic conventional wisdom, though, another book by Gladwell just might save the world.

The Canadian Press

  • Title: Talking To Strangers
  • Author: Malcolm Gladwell
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Little Brown
  • Pages: 388

The thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking To Strangers, is straightforward: It is that certain crime-reducing strategies adopted by police forces in the United States are based on psychological insights and yet turn out to be deeply flawed and even dangerous. It is these psychology-based crime-reduction techniques that led, in part, to the aggressive stopping of young African-Americans in the U.S. that in turn led to the disproportionate number of police shootings that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But to get to this useful and progressive conclusion, Gladwell meanders through history, telling stories of spy catchers and lie detectors, of Chamberlain being duped by Hitler, of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University, of facial analysis of the actors on Friends. These stories range from scientific to anecdotal, and they are all interesting in their own right.

Gladwell’s inquiry into how we believe strangers – and why we might think they are lying – was driven by his curiosity about a famously sad case of a police stop gone wrong. In 2015 a young African-American woman named Sandra Bland was pulled over by a white police officer for failure to signal a lane change. She got indignant, he got mad, the whole thing escalated and she ended up in a jail cell, where she killed herself three days later.

The audio recording of the encounter went viral and became part of the national conversation about police aggression against people of colour. Gladwell reproduces the whole exchange and analyzes it to determine in what way the officer was trained to misread the woman.

His explanation is largely based on the theories of psychologist Tim Levine, who described the “default to truth” in human interactions. This is simply that we expect people, in most situations, to be telling the truth. This is how spies and fraudsters get away with their capers. If we were automatically suspicious of everything and everyone, human interaction and commerce would effectively cease: We would be paralyzed. Levine says, “What we gain in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie is efficient communication and social co-ordination.”

Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell.BRYAN DERBALLA/The New York Times News Service

Gladwell tells the fascinating story of an investment analyst called Harry Markopolos who suspected that fraudster Bernie Madoff was a fake long before anyone else did, and investigated him assiduously. No one would listen to Markopolos’s warnings. He collected his findings and, being a naturally non-trusting guy, afraid of repercussions, tried to pass them over to authorities anonymously. His cloak-and-dagger antics made sure that he was ignored. He ended up hiding in a house guarded by multiple locks and electronic surveillance. His unnatural suspiciousness had put him ahead of everyone else in uncovering the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, but it also paralyzed him. Gladwell says, “He sat at home, guns at the ready, while the rest of us went about our business.”

How does this relate to the police stop of Bland? It turns out that police departments across the United States had learned, after years of research, that the natural gullibility of people (the “default to truth” state) is unhelpful in preventing crime in high-crime areas. If police in those areas are actively suspicious of people – using every possible excuse to interrogate them, such as a missing tail light or seat belt or the faintest whiff of marijuana in their car – they make far more arrests in more serious matters.

(Gladwell doesn’t mention this, but you can see this practice in action on reality TV shows such as Live PD on A&E – in which almost every segment begins with an officer pulling someone over for not signalling or not having a seat belt. Then they search the car and find some weed.)

Officer Brian Encinia, who pulled over Bland, was trained to go against his human instinct: He was taught to not believe her, to suspect that everything she was doing was a ploy that held a violent intent.

The book, then, ends up as a plea to return to our natural state of gullibility, our “default to truth.” The consequences of this laxity would be twofold: We would still be victim to the occasional Russian mole or New York Ponzi artist, but fewer black Americans would be shot or unjustly imprisoned by the police.

The great pleasure of this book, though, is not the clarity of this argument but its more-or-less relevant detours, the entertaining histories that sometimes only vaguely back up the thesis.

The stuff about how Cuban spy Ana Montes went unnoticed for years while getting ever higher in the upper levels of U.S. intelligence agencies is as fun as a novel. It illustrates the default-to-truth theory but is just as interesting if it doesn’t. The story of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s conspiratorial suicidal ideations is part of an even longer digression about how particular places and opportunities can trigger suicides as much as intent can.

This, plus a long and fascinating summary of how American student Amanda Knox was falsely accused of murder in Italy (prosecutors were convinced of her guilt from the outset because she behaved strangely), is all meant to illustrate the rather obvious fact that we can easily misinterpret the words of strangers when those strangers are out of their normal contexts.

It has become necessary to point out in any review of a Gladwell book that the author, now also a popular and successful podcaster, is subject to disdainful criticism from academics and other less populist intellectuals, who say he is a simplifier, an entertainer rather than a social scientist. These critiques are usually caustic and condescending in tone and they have the unmistakable tinge of envy about them.

And they miss the point. They say his musings are filled with factoids and anecdotes. But factoids and anecdotes are immensely entertaining. Gladwell’s writing is itself entertaining – it is clear and dramatic at the same time. The assumption that intellectual inquiry should not be entertaining comes from an academy hoping to maintain its authority behind a wall of jargon. Read this and disagree with it if you like; even that experience will be intriguing and diverting, and these are values we look for in books.

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Talking to Strangers | review + discussion
Talking to Strangers | review + discussion

Critical reception[edit]

Reviews by Carol Tavris in The Wall Street Journal and Anthony Gottlieb in The New York Times say that “the book is not really about strangers” and the “title doesn’t describe the book”.[9][7] Gottlieb notes how Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Ana Montes, and others deceived not only strangers, but also those familiar and close to them.[7] Tavris notes how the stories in the book are related to people we talk “about” rather than those we talk “to” in our daily lives.[9] Tavris asserts that the strangers in the book, like Hitler and Bernie Madoff, are not strangers at all, but people who may have been in the news, or someone we knew or admired, before learning more about them changed our entire perception.[9] Andrew Ferguson writes in The Atlantic that Gladwell does not define the word “stranger” in the book, and the definition varies according to the story being told.[10]

Gladwell is criticized by more than one reviewer about the quality of his research for the book. Tavris calls him a “somewhat lazy researcher”.[9] Ferguson in The Atlantic points out that Gladwell referenced “poets die young” in the Sylvia Plath anecdote, using a study which had a sample of just 36 “major poets” consisting of “British and Irish poets born between 1705 and 1805”. Out of these 36, two committed suicide, and this is the basis for the following line in Gladwell’s book that Ferguson criticizes: “And of every occupational category, [poets] have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population”.[10] Ferguson also questions the reasoning behind how someone would categorize a “poet” into an “occupational category”, adding that “at times he (Gladwell) approaches self-parody”.[10] Tavris also criticizes a footnote that she says is “flat-out wrong”, writing, “The idea that traumatic memories are repressed and can be retrieved only under the direction of therapy is—to say the least—controversial”.[9] Tavris notes how an underlying theme throughout the book, truth-default theory by psychologist Timothy R. Levine, is used very superficially and without any discussion of the conditions under which “we default to truth, and when don’t we?”[9]

Tavris asserts that Gladwell’s whole point is that we label people too quickly, even without knowing the whole picture; we think that we would be able to recognize evil when it stared us in the face, and how wrong we are in this assumption.[9] Gottlieb writes in The New York Times that “a little more substance would have been nice”,[7] while Ben East writes in The National that the book has “no defining, take-home idea”.[6]

Some critics were moderate in their reception, expressing doubt in Gladwell’s ideas but praising other aspects of the book.The Times of India expresses doubt in Gladwell’s interpretation of Bland’s death, but says that Gladwell’s “writing is as immersive as ever and his storytelling skills are commendable”, and that the book is even for those who like the social sciences or fiction.[11] Brian Naylor of NPR expresses doubt in Gladwell’s theories around the sexual assault of Chanel Miller and Bland’s case, suggesting that while he is oversimplifying some situations, Gladwell’s ideas around perception of strangers still contain good advice. [12] Andrew Anthony of The Guardian is doubtful of the relationship between the various circumstances Gladwell draws comparisons between, still suggesting the book is “fascinating study of gullibility and the social necessity of trusting strangers”.[3]

Summary[edit]

Talking to Strangers studies miscommunication, interactions and assumptions people make when dealing with those that they don’t know. To make his point, Gladwell covers a variety of events and issues, including the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland; British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s interactions with Adolf Hitler; the sex abuse scandal of Larry Nassar; the Cuban mole Ana Montes; the investment scandal of Bernie Madoff; the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal; the trial of Amanda Knox; the Brock Turner rape case; Sylvia Plath’s death; and the Kansas City preventive patrol experiment.[3][4] The book opens and closes with an analysis of the Sandra Bland case.[5]

The book draws from the truth-default theory by psychologist and communication studies professor Timothy R. Levine.[6][7] “Default to truth” is used throughout the book to observe how human beings are by nature trusting, not only of people or technology, but of everything. Sometimes this kind of behavior, the lack of understanding each other, leads to disastrous and tragic outcomes, as elaborated by Gladwell in the stories he brings.[8] Gladwell notes how there are evolutionary social reasons why we trust more than suspect – the need for cooperation being one. Gladwell asserts that defaulting to distrust would be disastrous and that we should “accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers”.[7]

The audiobook version of the book features voices of people Gladwell interviewed, such as scientists and military psychologists. Court transcripts are re-enacted. The book uses the theme song “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monáe.[2]

Talking To Strangers Summary (Animated) — Grasp the Human Psyche For Better Everyday Interactions
Talking To Strangers Summary (Animated) — Grasp the Human Psyche For Better Everyday Interactions

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Talking To Strangers' Review: Malcolm Gladwell Explores Why It'S So Hard :  Npr
Talking To Strangers’ Review: Malcolm Gladwell Explores Why It’S So Hard : Npr
Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don'T Know:  Gladwell, Malcolm: 9780316478526: Books - Amazon.Ca
Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’T Know: Gladwell, Malcolm: 9780316478526: Books – Amazon.Ca
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Review: Malcolm Gladwell & Talking To Strangers
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Malcolm Gladwell On Talking To Strangers – Youtube
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85| Book Review: Talking To Strangers By Malcolm Gladwell
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Talk To Strangers On Steam
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Talk To Strangers: The Yes Theory Story – Seek Discomfort
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Don’T Talk To Strangers | Board Game | Boardgamegeek
Talk To Strangers On Steam
Talk To Strangers On Steam
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Sách Đọc Vị Người Lạ – Talking To Strangers – Fahasa.Com
Summary Of Talking To Strangers By Malcolm Gladwell | Free Audiobook -  Youtube
Summary Of Talking To Strangers By Malcolm Gladwell | Free Audiobook – Youtube
Why It'S (Mostly) Ok For Kids To Talk To Strangers Online - Wsj
Why It’S (Mostly) Ok For Kids To Talk To Strangers Online – Wsj
The Big Idea: Why We Should Spend More Time Talking To Strangers | Mental  Health | The Guardian
The Big Idea: Why We Should Spend More Time Talking To Strangers | Mental Health | The Guardian
Talking To Strangers By Malcolm Gladwell Book Review - Youtube
Talking To Strangers By Malcolm Gladwell Book Review – Youtube
Talk To Strangers On Steam
Talk To Strangers On Steam

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