Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

"Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger."

This has been a strange week for me. I go back to work today after 10 weeks of working from home. I'm excited to finally return and be able to interact with my co-workers from beyond just video conferencing, but I'm also a little anxious about living in this new version of normal. All things considered, it should have been no surprise that I had trouble focussing on reading. In fact, I started reading no less than four other books before settling on this week's read. I just couldn't find a groove with the books I thought that I wanted to read. I ended up veering a bit outside of my normal reading habits to read Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. This was a Christmas gift from my boss, so it had been sitting on my shelf for a few months. Something about Gladwell's matter-of-fact explanations of a complex subject really worked for me. Before I knew it, I was 100 pages in, thoroughly invested, and finally able to focus on reading.

Talking to someone you don't know, someone who maybe does not have the shared experiences you do, the same political leanings, or maybe even someone who does not speak the same language as you can be inherently challenging. Gladwell presents the challenge of talking with strangers through a case study of the infamous traffic stop of Sandra Bland. If you're not familiar with this tragic story, I'll give a brief rundown now. Bland was an African-American student who was pulled over for what should have played out as a routine traffic stop. She was annoyed at the stop, and the officer reacted in a way that led to the arrest of Bland. She committed suicide in her jail cell. Gladwell posits that this scenario was the result of the officer failing to properly respond to various verbal and non-verbal cues, ultimately culminating in the unnecessary death of an innocent woman. On a larger scale, he believes this points to a general failure of society to carry to proper tools to effectively communicate with strangers.

From this, Gladwell then explores three main ideas through other anecdotal evidence. The first is the idea that people generally default to the truth when speaking to people they don't know. We are essentially wired to believe anything that can't be easily contradicted. The second is related to the idea of transparency, the idea that we rely on non-verbal hints as much as what the person says. Gladwell specifically mentions how culture can change the way body language and facial expression matches with the intent of words. Finally, Gladwell delves into the idea of coupling. This is the idea that the context of a person's life directly impacts their behavior in specific circumstances. He combines these three examples to help make sense of the Sandra Bland story and to provide us with ways to be aware of how we interact with strangers in our own lives.

Frankly, I wasn't expecting Talking to Strangers to be as compulsively readable as it was. Gladwell has the unique ability to distill complex concepts and situations down to be understandable without betraying the innate intricacies that each of them holds. I found his writing to be fairly balanced toward both sides of his examples, even when my own emotional response leaned more toward one truth than the counter perspectives he provided. Examples of rape and pedophilia in specific were difficult for me to see both sides of. In the end, I'm not sure Gladwell presented any revelatory advice beyond what I already knew. If anything, his examples have simply made me more aware of the ways I interact with people I do not know. And maybe that is the most we can hope for from a book like this. In a time when people seem more divided than ever, Talking With Strangers is the kind of tool that gives us the perspective to try to better interact with the stranger that we encounter in our own lives.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2020, 23)

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 and is filed under ,,,,,. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

26 Responses to “Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. Good luck heading back to work! I hope it's a happy and safe week for you.

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    1. Thanks! It was a pretty painless first day back!

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  2. I'm glad this one worked for you after several misses. Sounds like the author's writing style is easy and straight-forward. I hope your first day back in the office went well!

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    1. He did such a great job of capturing my attention, especially at a time when I just couldn't focus on anything else!

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  3. Interesting. I love that this pulled you in and perhaps made you reflect a little.

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  4. I've never read anything by Gladwell, but this one sounds fascinating. I might just have to read it!

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    1. Everyone I know who has read his books really sing his praises, and this one made me understand why!

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  5. I feel nowadays people hardly ever communicate with people they don't know. People just walk down the street with their head INTO their smartphone screen or wearing headphones so they can't hear anybody.

    I always greet the people in my street and sometimes I even scare them by doing that, LOL...

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    1. That is very true. I think even making eye contact with people can make them uncomfortable!

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  6. I have seen and was aware of this title Ethan, but hadn't a clue what it was about. Thanks for the great review and thinking points. I hope your first day back at work went okay....

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    1. Thanks. This one was pretty interesting and was a nice change of pace for me.

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  7. I've been having trouble settling on a book that satisfies as well. I ca understand why your focus would be off with the uncertainties of going back to the office. Glad you finally found one!

    This does sound informative. I think it's sometimes hard to try and puzzle out where a person is coming from and it's good to slow down and make the effort. It certainly would help avoid the tragedy of Sandra Bland. Very sad. Not sure I'd see the POV of a rapist or pedophile, is that one of the things he was trying to explain?

    Good luck on your first day back, Ethan! Hope they're arranging things for your safety! :)

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    1. Thanks for the well wishes. Work has been going very smoothly!

      Gladwell dives into both the Brock Turner and Jerry Sandusky cases. He doesn't really give their POV, but he does talk about the people who sided with them. In the Sandusky case, this included a man who was actually molested by him.

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  8. Glad you got past the jitters of being back at work in the new way of doing things.
    This sounds like a good book to spark personal awareness and I would have loved having this book when I did intake work with people from lots of races and all walks of life.

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    1. It definitely would have been helpful. I found myself re-evaluating how I talk to people.

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  9. Speaking to strangers is hard! Esp coming from a country where we do not talk to strangers ;)

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  10. I hope that your transition back to the office has been a good one. This sounds like a really well put together book. Communication is tough especially when you don't really know the person you are talking to.

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    1. Thanks. Everything has been as smooth as we could have hoped for!

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  11. I may have to give this one a try. I have read so many of his books but have struggled to actually get through them and I am not sure why. His subjects and topics are really interesting, so that is why I keep slogging through. But I don't necessarily end up liking the books, which is weird because in theory, he is writing all of these books personally for me.

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    1. I was worried this one wouldn't capture my attention, but I was heavily invested in it!

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    2. That is good to know. I think I have read all of his books prior to this one, though I might be missing one and can't recall its name at the moment. I will probably still get to this one eventually.

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    3. I'm eager to read more from him, so I'm glad to know you've read some of his others.

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  12. I hope that your return to work has been an easy transition thus far. My work is taking it extremely slow, so I'm still working from home for now.

    This book sounds interesting and definitely appeals to the sociologist in me. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. Work has been pretty smooth so far. I think you'd really enjoy this one too!

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