Book Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: September 10, 2019
Source: Borrowed

Malcolm Gladwell, host of the podcast Revisionist History and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Outliers, offers a powerful examination of our interactions with strangers — and why they often go wrong.

How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?

While tackling these questions, Malcolm Gladwell was not solely writing a book for the page. He was also producing for the ear. In the audiobook version of Talking to Strangers, you’ll hear the voices of people he interviewed–scientists, criminologists, military psychologists. Court transcripts are brought to life with re-enactments. You actually hear the contentious arrest of Sandra Bland by the side of the road in Texas. As Gladwell revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies. There’s even a theme song – Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.”

Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

It’s been a long time since I finished a book feeling quite as conflicted as I do now.

On the one hand, Talking to Strangers is an incredibly interesting, engaging book about a number of high-profile news stories over the last several decades. Gladwell takes on Jerry Sandusky, Amanda Knox, Sandra Bland, Sylvia Plath, Larry Nassar, and more. He presents really interesting psychological studies. He made me think about how I interpret strangers’ behavior and how other people might interpret mine.

On the other hand, I’m not sure he ever makes his point, or if he really has a point to make. He makes some disturbing excuses for sexual assault and race-based crimes. I’d like to think that he’s just trying to provide a well-rounded view on the topic, but if there were ever topics that shouldn’t be excused, they’re sexual assault and racism.

Two things I learned from this book:

  • We naturally default to truth. We want to believe that people aren’t lying to us, so we’ll rationalize weird behavior, as in the Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar cases. Not defaulting to truth, and instead defaulting to everyone being a criminal, is what results in cases like Sandra Bland’s arrest.
  • Things like crime and suicide are coupled, meaning that their place and context of occurrence are tied to their existence. For example, adding a suicide barrier on a bridge will overall reduce suicides, not encourage people who might want to commit suicide to find an alternate method. Increasing police presence in a high crime neighborhood will overall reduce crime, not force it to a different area.

It seems that Gladwell’s main point in this book is that many of the problems in the world can be traced back to misunderstandings. That seems to be a pretty flimsy idea to base a nearly 400-page book around, and I don’t really think the connection worked for me. That said, this book was so interesting that I don’t really care.

Have you read Talking to Strangers? Have you read any good books on psychology recently?
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