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Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

by Malcolm Gladwell

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2,680944,910 (3.77)54
In this thoughtful treatise spurred by the 2015 death of African-American academic Sandra Bland in jail after a traffic stop, New Yorker writer Gladwell (The Tipping Point) aims to figure out the strategies people use to assess strangers-to "analyze, critique them, figure out where they came from, figure out how to fix them," in other words: to understand how to balance trust and safety. He uses a variety of examples from history and recent headlines to illustrate that people size up the motivations, emotions, and trustworthiness of those they don't know both wrongly and with misplaced confidence.… (more)

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Most people default to the truth. If you tell a story,I believe you. Secondly, people are not transparent. You cannot tell by someone’s behavior what he is thinking or whether he’s lying or being truthful. Third, crime and suicide are coupled with place. If there’s a way to commit suicide, then it can happen. Before the net on the San Francisco bridge, lots of people jumped. Crime happens in certain areas. This book was a new way to think about strangers and policing strategies. ( )
  bereanna | May 16, 2023 |
Another interesting take on life and society from Gladwell. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by the author but also included segments of voice clips or re-creations of events by actors when no voice clip was available.

Gladwell utilises case studies and real life events to illustrate the points he wants to make about how people miscommunicate when they interact with strangers. Gladwell says that one of the biggest obstacles to communication is the truth-default theory which shows that people are, by default, prepared to believe what others tell them until there is overwhelming proof that they are lying. One of the cases he uses to illustrate this is the investment scandal run by Bernie Madoff. For years no-one caught on that Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme that raked in billions. Gladwell says that there are good reasons for believing someone is telling the truth in most situations. If people had doubt about every interaction with others society, with its reliance on trusting other people to do what they say they will do, would be anarchical. Gladwell shows what can happen when police utilize suspicion regularly. Sandra Bland was stopped by a Texas state ranger, Brian Encinia, for failing to indicate a lane change. In fact, Bland changed lanes because she saw the ranger's cruiser rapidly approaching in the lane she was in and so she moved over thinking he was heading to a call. Encinia was using this tactic to stop what he thought was a suspicious vehicle because it had out of state license plates. In some cases pulling vehicles over for minor causes has enabled police to find drugs and/or weapons being used by criminals. Sandra Bland was no criminal and the area where this traffic stop took place was not a high crime area. Bland was angry and the interaction with Encinia escalated until he forced her to get out of her car and handcuffed her. She was put in jail and three days later she killed herself. That's the sort of fallout that can happen when suspicion is given free reign.

Perhaps naiveley, I thought that I would learn tips for how to communicate better but that isn't what Gladwell does in this book. It was however fascinating to follow along all the twists and turns of Gladwell's mind as he takes us from diverse events such as Sylvia Plath's suicide, Neville Chamberlain's interactions with Hitler, a sexual assault at a university when both victim and assailant were grossly inebriated, Cuban espionage, Al-Quaeda terrorist, and more. ( )
  gypsysmom | May 8, 2023 |
This book is a very enjoyable read that weaves in a number of interesting contemporary anecdotes as it attempts to "prove" its thesis. Basically, the major premise is that when dealing with strangers most people default to believing they are truthful. Gladwell then uses anecdotes to show the reader when such a default is useful and the inverse.

Most of the stories he uses were pulled straight from recent news, and I had familiarity with about 70% of them.

At the end of the day, I wasn't really sure that any hard and fast conclusions were drawn about the advisability of trusting strangers . . .the book really shows all sides. Truly fun reading, but is it really anything more than that? ( )
  Anita_Pomerantz | Mar 23, 2023 |
3.75 stars

In this one, Gladwell looks at how we communicate (or not) with people we don’t know. Or really, how well (or not) that communication is. Generally, people assume other people are telling the truth. But what if they aren’t? Drinking changes communication and how we read (or don’t) other people. Police interactions. Spies. Crime and safety. And more. Of course, there are studies that show us some surprising results.

So he actually started off with what was the least interesting to me of all the stories – the spies. But the rest of the stories were of much more interest to me. I listened to the audio and he did it (so he said – I don’t really listen to podcasts) similar to a podcast where he used recordings of the people themselves talking or he used actors to reenact what someone said. Although some of the recordings were sometimes hard to hear, I quite enjoyed it done that way. So an extra ¼ star for the audio. ( )
  LibraryCin | Mar 13, 2023 |
I have read and enjoyed other works by Gladwell and his latest offering follows what has now become a familiar structure in his books. In the opening chapter, he starts with a case study which introduces the issue which will be addressed in the book. He then proceeds to divide it into smaller components, illustrating each of them with anecdotes or reference to experiments by social scientists. At the end of the book, Gladwell revisits the introductory case study, applying the insights obtained during the course of the previous chapters.

In Talking to Strangers the key case study is the notorious stand-off between African-American civilian Sandra Bland and police officer Brian Encina. On the pretext of a traffic violation, Bland was pulled over by Encina. What started as a fairly normal random check led to the arrest of an innocent woman and her subsequent suicide in a jail cell. Gladwell interprets this as an example of a gross misunderstanding, a failure on the part of Encina to correctly digest verbal and non-verbal communication. And, whilst not exonerating Encina, he considers this as a wider failure on the part of society to equip us with the necessary tools to understand “strangers”. Gladwell then gives other examples – such as Neville Chamberlain’s belief (shared by seasoned diplomats in his retinue) that Hitler would honour an agreement not to go to war, or the CIA’s failure to identify key double-agents in their midst. What is it, therefore that makes us prone to being fooled by strangers?

To answer this question, Gladwell relies heavily on the theories of psychologist Tim Levine. He argues that the first problem we face is what he calls “default to truth”. In other words, we are “wired” to accept the truth of what others are telling us, unless there are so many indications to the contrary that we cannot easily “explain them away”. This obviously puts us at a greater risk of being fooled now and then. However, the alternative to this approach would be to become paranoid, suspecting everything and everybody.

The second problem is related to “transparency”. We tend to rely on “visual” communication as much as on “non-visual” communication. Facial expressions, in particular, are often considered a fool proof method of understanding what others are really feeling. It turns out however that with certain people this just doesn’t work, and their facial expressions do not necessarily reflect their real thoughts. In particular, culture affects visual cues, compounding the transparency problem. Intrinsically tied to this is the “mismatch” issue. Basically, this means that whilst even reading the expressions of “transparent” people can be challenging at times, our performance is abysmal when expressions and thoughts are mismatched.

The final challenge in “talking to strangers” relates to the “coupling” phenomenon. Gladwell observes that we tend to underestimate the effects of “context” (geographical or circumstantial) on individuals, which leads us to wrongly predict how an individual would react or behave in specific circumstances.

Gladwell’s solution to these problems is, to my mind, quite generic. He emphasizes that we need to be aware of the tendency to “default to truth” and not penalize each other for it. He also advocates for greater humility and respect in our dealings with strangers, giving ourselves the time to understand not just the individual facing us, but also the “context”.

There’s no denying Gladwell’s readability – I gobbled up this book in two longish sittings over a weekend. His arguments move forward with a clear logic and are illustrated by compelling examples. He provides many startling insights and at his best, can effectively change one’s perceptions and prejudices. Yet, at the end, just as with other books of his, I felt rather like the audience at a magician’s show, convinced that there must be a “trick” somewhere. His conclusions are certainly persuasive – but can we be sure that he has not been selective in the anecdotes he shares with us? Can the social experiments he refers to be relied upon?

The dangers of relying blindly on the examples Gladwell mentions are illustrated, ironically, by the author himself. The interpretation of facial expressions was a key point in an earlier book of his – Blink – some of whose material overlaps with this. In Blink, following the findings of Paul Ekman, Gladwell advocated for a “universalist” interpretation of facial expressions. In Talking to Strangers he admits to changing his views on Ekman, in the light of more recent studies. There is, of course, nothing wrong with changing or developing one’s opinion – on the contrary, Gladwell should be commended for his intellectual honesty in making this clear. However, it also serves as a salutary lesson in not taking all Gladwell’s arguments as self-evident.

This “margin of error” (for want of a better term) is particularly delicate in the present book, since the examples Gladwell refers to are, to say the least, controversial. He contends, for instance, that in the Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar abuse scandals, the failure of authorities to take prompt action was not necessarily fuelled by some nefarious cover-up attempt, but might have been the result of a natural “default to truth”. Similarly, in discussing the Brock Turner rape case, whilst, on the one hand, condemning the perpetrator, he mentions the alcohol factor as an element which complicated the correct understanding of “consent” – effectively portraying the incident is a particularly grievous and damaging ‘misunderstanding’. Gladwell retains a respectful and balanced voice, but this is incendiary stuff. I’m quite sure that victims of abuse will not be easily convinced by these “default to truth” arguments, however compellingly put.

Whether one agrees or not with his overarching theories or their particular components, however, Gladwell comes across as an intelligent interlocutor whose observations are thought-provoking and valuable.

3.5* ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Feb 21, 2023 |
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For Graham Gladwell, 1934-2017
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In July 2015, a young African American woman named Sandra Bland drove from her hometown of Chicago to a little town an hour west of Houston, Texas.
We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.
"Trying to get information out of someone you are sleep-depriving is sort of like trying to get a better signal out of a radio that you are smashing with a sledgehammer...."
In his book Why Torture Doesn't Work, neuroscientist Shane O'Mara writes that extended sleep deprivation "might induce some form of surface compliance"—but only at the cost of "long-term structural remodeling of the brain systems that support the very functions that the interrogator wishes to have access to."
And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population.
Sherman crunched the numbers and found something that seemed hard to believe: 3.3 percent of the street segments in the city accounted for more than 50 percent of the police calls.
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In this thoughtful treatise spurred by the 2015 death of African-American academic Sandra Bland in jail after a traffic stop, New Yorker writer Gladwell (The Tipping Point) aims to figure out the strategies people use to assess strangers-to "analyze, critique them, figure out where they came from, figure out how to fix them," in other words: to understand how to balance trust and safety. He uses a variety of examples from history and recent headlines to illustrate that people size up the motivations, emotions, and trustworthiness of those they don't know both wrongly and with misplaced confidence.

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