Review: Malcolm Gladwell & Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell was a haunting, compelling read that took me by surprise. I’m not big on non-fiction books, but I’ve read a few here and there. And I’m obviously late to the Gladwell train. When I spotted the book, the title alone was enough to pique my interest. As someone incapable of talking to strangers like it’s not a big deal, I was intrigued. I haven’t read other Malcolm Gladwell books before, but now I just might.

Following is not the type of book review you’re used to getting from me, but rather a Talking to Strangers summary of the key takeaways from the book. Talking to Strangers is convoluted, difficult to follow, and makes not one or two questionable statements, given some of the sensitive topics it explores – including sexual assault, sexual abuse, and pedophilia. Despite all that, it’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, a connect-the-dots type of journey that, ultimately, makes sense.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers: Summary

Malcolm Gladwell explores the implications of miscommunication and assumptions we make when faced with a stranger. The book starts and ends with the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland, drawing from various historical events to create a picture of what happened that day in Texas – from Hitler’s ability to mislead Chamberlain on the eve of war, through the sickening case of Larry Nassar, to more obscure (for me) snapshots of history like the Amanda Knox verdict.

The overarching narrative forces us, the readers, to explore our own assumptions and opinions of strangers, as well as their consequences. In other words – what makes our communication with strangers go so terribly wrong sometimes. And here are the three pillars that Talking to Strangers is built upon:

1. The Default-to-Truth

Human beings, by default, trust more than they are suspicious of others. As someone who always nurtures a little bit of suspicion towards everyone and everything, I can see how that’s a double-edged sword. Most people would trust right up to the point when it’s impossible to believe. When the metaphorical straw breaks the metaphorical camel’s back. The thing is, in some cases, even if a metaphorical drop makes the cup run over, there are real-life, hard-hitting consequences.

Of course, the other extreme would be the case of Harry Markopolos, who had no limit, a threshold between doubts and disbelief. He chose not to trust at all. In anything. Ever, it seems. I believe people, in general, are worthy of giving them the benefit of the doubt. Yet, a grain of suspicion is always helpful and might spare us all train-wreck of consequences.

“Default to truth becomes an issue when we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely and the other of which is impossible to imagine.”

2. Transparency & Mismatched People

Those were quite interesting for me as a writer. In fiction, we’re supposed to follow a hard and fast rule – show, don’t tell. It’s a talent I’ve not mastered, yet, but it’s also not that hard or fast of a rule. That would assume we’re writing for culturally similar individuals, not a wider audience.

Allow me the simplest of examples – when you read somewhere “they nodded” or “they shook their head”, you probably assume, respectively, agreement and disagreement. Well, welcome to Bulgaria. Here we usually shake our heads side to side to say “yes” and say “no” with a brisk upward nod. This is not a myth – I switch gears when traveling through Europe, to avoid confusion.

Of course, when it comes to facial expressions, they are more or less universal. And that’s where the fallacy of transparency comes into play.

“Transparency is a myth – an idea we’ve picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero’s ‘jaw dropped with astonishment’ or ‘eyes went wide with surprise’.”

We’re hard-wired to believe that whatever shows on people’s faces is a direct result of their inner condition. And that’s somewhat socially necessary. But we’ve all seen photos of “what depression looks like”, for example. This belief in transparency often leads to misjudging strangers. And sometimes, the consequences are terrible. Especially if those strangers are mismatched.

Amanda Knox is one of those mismatched people – an innocent acting guilty. It’s easier to believe that outward behavior corresponds to the internal state of a person, instead of doubting our knowledge and understanding of nonverbal cues. I tend to agree with the narrative – we’re very poor lie detectors when faced with mismatched strangers. Doubting our own understanding of anything, really, only leads to confusion, and it’s easier not to doubt.

3. Coupling

I like context. As an author, I always try to give my characters context, the reasoning for their actions and truths. After all, a character is nothing but a stranger to the reader when they first crack open a book. The thing is, readers have the whole length of the book to turn that stranger into a friend. We have a moment or two.

“Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions… We do not understand the context in which the stranger is operating.”

And we shouldn’t have to. While context is important, it shouldn’t be mistaken for an excuse or justification, especially when it comes to heinous crimes. Rape is not a misunderstanding, and that’s one of the more vivid points on which I can’t agree with some of the conclusions in the book. Even though The Fraternity Party case study wasn’t part of the Coupling segment of Talking to Strangers, it somewhat tried to create context for the events, making them look gray, and not as black and white as they actually are.


Talking to Strangers: Review Verdict

Despite its shortcomings, Malcolm Gladwell has written an engaging, page-turning book. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know captures the attention and can chill you to the bone. But it also gives you food for thought. It touches on some controversial and sensitive topics, there’s a whiff of victim-blaming, but that’s corresponding to the ending of the book:

“Because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.”

It was 40% quality storytelling and 60% morbid curiosity that kept me glued to the pages. For a non-fiction book, it sure read like a fact-induced thriller. If you’re not afraid of the convoluted narrative, some of the controversial statements, and the number of sensitive topics discussed, do give Talking to Strangers a shot. Don’t forget to drop a comment below if you’ve already read it!


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Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
I’m a copywriter by work, reader by heart, writer by night & a daydreamer all year round. I dabble in graphic design whenever time’s left. I breathe words and try to weave worlds.
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