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

by Malcolm Gladwell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,2235211,338 (3.78)31
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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Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
Not Gladwell's best, but good writing. ( )
  sberson | Oct 12, 2020 |
One of Gladwell's best! Talking to Strangers has become even more relevant in 2020, the year of COVID, where the book's central topic, how to understand strangers, and police violence are once again at the forefront of the national conversation. Gladwell even devotes an entire section to the police training programs, and their subsequent disincentives, which eventually led to the explosive clashes with the police in 2020. The casual reader might be shocked to learn that police forces across the country have been trained to target suspicious activity in high-crime areas. In other words, police are trying to catch criminals before they commit wrongdoings. This has been shown to significantly reduce crime, which is what the public wants, but there are risks to this approach. The casual reader might have missed the warning embedded near the end where those who set up the program cautioned against deploying these tactics too broadly because then you run the risk of souring public relations without actually reducing crime at all. It was always a fine line to walk, and as 2020 has shown it's gotten out of hand.

The section on the police and crime reduction is only a piece of the larger puzzle when it comes to strangers. A powerful and often mentioned phrase is one defined early on, called "default to truth." It's the tendency to misread people who are ill-intentioned because the majority of us aren't predisposed to behave that way, and, this is perhaps the most important part, we don't want to believe in an evil world. I'm certainly guilty of defaulting to truth. I would like to believe I can successfully read someone's character by interacting with them in person, but the evidences suggest my biases would work against me. Even more disconcerting, it might be impossible to remove the bias entirely. As with the examples of the judges handing down bail rulings, programing an algorithm to review only the criminal record and comparing that with a judge who has access to the same criminal record AND meets the offender face-to-face, the algorithm outperformed the human the majority of the time.

Bonus recommendation: Listen to the audiobook if you can. Gladwell himself is the reader and his intent was to give "Talking To Strangers" the feel of a podcast. In some cases, there are actual recordings and in other cases, where recordings don't exist, voice actors are employed which give it an oral history feel. Gladwell 100% nails it with this production. ( )
  Daniel.Estes | Sep 30, 2020 |
I appreciate Gladwell's story-telling prowess. He finds interesting events and tells them with a unique perspective, including different sides and backstories that you may not have heard in the popular news. His leaps in logic though are often frustrating.

As an example, he walks through a very interesting take on academic studies done in Kansas City around crime, then explains how that study was taken out of context, applied to a setting that didn't reflect the original study parameters, and then leaps to saying the problem is people don't communicate with each other. I don't understand how he got there. Academic studies are rarely applied correctly. The real communication issues are between academics and the people they purport to educate with their research. Applying controlled research with no understanding of the key attributes of the study guarantees misapplication on a grand and often damaging scale.

I still recommend reading this one. The story telling is too good to miss, the points raised are raised in a way that creates friction, thought, and argument, a worthy end to any academic pursuit. But please, form your own opinions and recognize that Gladwell's opinions are just opinion. While he includes real-life stories and a thorough and interesting bibliography, this is not research. It is a long-form opinion essay. ( )
  out-and-about | Sep 12, 2020 |
I’m fascinated by all the stories. Can’t stop listening! So far, at after about chapter 6, I’m giving it 4 ½ stars. ( )
  Meladylo | Sep 12, 2020 |
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 | Sep 12, 2020 |
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Gladwell, Malcolmprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gladwell, MalcolmNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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