Book Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

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How good are you at talking with strangers? Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book Talking to Strangers: What we Should Know About the People We Don’t Know suggests that we’re terrible at it. Yet, we interact with strangers every day. How is it that Gladwell claims that we’re so bad at reading people?

I’m going to review this book for you. Talking to Strangers highlights current issues of our times, including race. Further, Gladwell unravels the reasons why professionals make mistakes in their endeavor to understand people. Before reviewing the book, I want to highlight the gravity of the content in this book. Gladwell expertly explains how innocuous situations go awry. Yet, misperceptions and miscues contribute to hysteria as people navigate the unknown of each other.

I’ll first summarize the book, give you what I liked, then I’ll talk about what I didn’t like.

Summary

Gladwell breaks his book into five parts:

  1. Spies and Diplomats: Two Puzzles
  2. Default to Truth
  3. Transparency
  4. Lessons
  5. Prairie View, Texas

Gladwell begins with an interaction between Sandra Bland and Texas highway patrolman, Brian Encinia. In the audiobook, Gladwell uses the actual footage at the scene where Officer Encinia arrests Sandra Bland. She was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. After some exchange, the situation escalated, Bland was arrested, and she was found dead in her jail cell after committing suicide.

That was only one tale in the book. Gladwell goes deep into the Ana Montes case. Montes was a spy for Cuba who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency for many years before being caught. Experts hadn’t noticed how Montes was able to keep her deception hidden for so long. Similarly, Gladwell further dives into how Cuba fooled the United States when most U.S. spies in Cuba were double agents. Gladwell asks, how are these experts being fooled? The Central Intelligence Agency was the one who vetted these people to be spies on behalf of the United States into Cuba. Yet, the U.S. got played. Default to truth was to blame here.

Gladwell talked about convicted child sex abuser and former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and how we continue to default to the truth because there is not a preponderance of evidence to suggest the contrary. Additionally, Gladwell applies the default to truth theory to former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, Larry Nassar. He dives into how these two influential people were allowed to continue their crimes under the guise of their reputations.

Later in the book, Gladwell talks about interrogations and terrorists. How can an interrogator extract information from a terrorist who will not expose their secrets? It’s a classic example of an unstoppable object colliding with an immovable object. Regarding interrogations, Gladwell dives into the world of the U.S. Military’s course Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School (SERE). He goes into the question of how do people resist or give into interrogations?

He also discusses the death of Sylvia Plath, the Milgram Experiment, and other studies on truth. He’ll talk about British officials meeting with Adolf Hitler and falsely assuming that Hitler would not attack Poland. The puzzles remain. Gladwell’s in-depth look at human interaction emphasized the complexities of communication.

Buy Talking to Strangers

What I liked

I rarely ask people to choose the audiobook over the hardcover. But this one is an exception. Talking To Strangers is Gladwell’s best audiobook by far. Whenever there is an account, written or otherwise, he either has actors play the roles, or he plays the actual audio. For example, he plays the actual audio footage of the Sandra Bland arrest, speeches given by British officials, and interviews with counterintelligence officers. Gladwell is meticulous on how he presents the book. It plays like a podcast. He’ll play music and candidly quote the documents he uses.

Gladwell’s writing style is intriguing. He presents a puzzle, lays out the evidence, and then lets the reader think about the concept. In my opinion, I enjoy an unfinished story. It offers intrigue into why things are and what could change. Each section begins with a real-life account of what happened and then talks about why it happened. For example, Gladwell talks about the Amanda Knox case and why she got caught in a quagmire.

The material itself was engaging. I felt like Gladwell presented enough content to keep the reader interested in the story, but not too much to bore the reader. His examples were relevant to the points he was trying to make, which enhanced the content of the book.

What I didn’t like

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook, I thought the music was too much in places. It became more of a distraction than a help, in my opinion. I understand that music enhances a listener’s experience in some ways, but I think he should have dialed it back. Perhaps, he has been applying what he’s learned from his Revisionist History podcast.

Compared to Gladwell’s other books, he uses more foul language in this book partly because he uses actual unfiltered events to articulate his points. He’s not usually prone to using foul language in his other books, so it was more unexpected for me. If you’re more sensitive to foul language, just be warned. It’s not excessive, but it might be enough to make the audience uncomfortable.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Again, I highly encourage you to listen to the audiobook. It was entertaining, engaging, and informative. I felt like Gladwell handled sensitive topics with tact. He was analytical about the Sandra Bland case, which was refreshing to hear. I felt like Gladwell genuinely sought the truth behind the puzzle he was presenting.

Overall, I give this book a 9/10. Give it a read/listen! Leaders must understand their own biases and how those affect their workspaces. If you want to buy the book, click here.

Have you read this book? Why do you think we’re bad at talking to strangers? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. Andy Zeus Anderson says:

    First off excellent review. I love the fact you took readers inside the book and the stories within offered as object lessons in communications. While I am of the anti politically correct movement there are things in body language as well as conversation that can reveal a lot about the people you speak with. These mannerisms can make communication a breeze and new friends become old friends in a single watercooler moment.

    1. Robert says:

      Andy,

      I’m glad you found value in my review! It was an excellent book, and I think you’d enjoy it. Thank you for your comment!

      Robert

  2. Ryzehn says:

    This is a great article, great summaries that all sound pretty interesting. I don’t usually read or listen to these kind of books, but this sounds like I could learn a thing or two about talking to strangers. Seeing as I’m a huge introvert and don’t really go out of my way to talk to strangers, I don’t know if I’ll pick this book up. I’m going to have to think on this one a little bit. Thanks for the review and your thoughts on it!

    1. Robert says:

      Ryzehn,

      I’m glad you found some value in the review! It really is an engaging book, and I highly recommend the audio version. Thanks for your comment!

      Robert

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