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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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2,092816,165 (3.78)40
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 79 (next | show all)
This is a very thought-provoking read. I don't agree with everything the author says, but appreciate the many anecdotes and viewpoints he includes. ( )
  jlford3 | Apr 19, 2022 |
This book makes me want to throw up. "Talking to Strangers" is not a book about making friends or connections with strangers. It's a book on how badly we humans fail at interpreting and understanding other human beings - strangers - and some of the awful results.

Malcolm leads with the case of Sandra Bland. Then invites us to join him in investigations with spies in the CIA, Bernie Madoff, Sadusky, Amanda Knox, and Brock Turner ... and even visits how so many people failed to correctly size up Hitler himself. It's mind-boggling and revolting how wrong people are in judging other people.

( )
  wellington299 | Feb 19, 2022 |
As always Malcolm Gladwell has prepared a well researched and thoughtful book. Talking To Strangers is about how people fail to understand other people. People who think they can tell when somebody is lying are wrong at least half the time. Even trained observers and interviewers see clues that aren't clues and miss ones that are. How did Bernie Madoff get away with his fraud for so long? He acted like he was sincere and honest and nobody wanted to believe he was running an enormous scam. Why was Amanda Knox convicted of a crime she didn't do when there was no evidence pointing to her guilt. She acted nervously and didn't follow the usual customs that the police detectives expected. In Talking To Strangers we see that things are not always what we think they are. ( )
  MMc009 | Jan 30, 2022 |
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 | Jan 1, 2022 |
Listened to the audiobook so I'm not sure I absorbed as much, but it was super compelling--I didn't want to stop listening. Some really interesting research to consider regarding how culture teaches us to trust people versus being able to actually discern truth-tellers from liars. Not without its flaws, which is typical Gladwell in my experience, but that doesn't mean it's not worth your time. ( )
  ms_rowse | Jan 1, 2022 |
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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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