Dear Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell:
I have some mixed feelings about you. It’s taken me a while to work them out, but I think I’ll finally be able to articulate them.
Your general premise is so, so interesting. Your tagline–What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know–speaks for itself. What sorts of snap judgments do people make about strangers? What factors play into those judgments, and what effect do these first impressions have on how we interpret what people say? More importantly, how do these impressions play a role in whether or not we believe people are telling the truth? These and so many other fascinating, important questions create Gladwell’s framework for analyzing several crimes and incidents throughout history. Gladwell’s end goal is to use this analysis to think through what happened when Sandra Bland, a young African American woman, was arrested in 2015 and ended up committing suicide in her jail cell.
You were an incredible audiobook to listen to. In fact, you sounded more like an extended podcast than an audiobook, which was perfect for your subject matter. As a long-time fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, I loved how this book was a mix of Gladwell’s narration, court transcript re-enactments, and interviews. This blend of different voices really brought the stories and cases to life, particularly when explaining the background facts of certain incidents. I was so intrigued and captivated by the various narrations that I couldn’t stop listening.
But you were so much darker than I expected. From child sexual assault and campus rape to suicide, police misconduct, and torturing terrorists, you dive into a number of unsettling topics that were difficult to listen to at times. Although these crimes and incidents were fascinating to analyze from this perspective, it also felt a little odd to be thinking about them in this context. Sometimes I couldn’t help feel as though the most important issue in these cases wasn’t necessarily whether or not people made incorrect truth-judgments, but instead the real problem was racism or sexism or power dynamics.
Which brings me to the overall issue that I had with you, Talking to Strangers. In the end, I couldn’t help but feel as though your ultimate conclusion seems pretty obvious: that we are really bad at determining whether or not a stranger is telling the truth when their outward mannerisms and inward intentions are mismatched. It would have made more sense if this book was about applying this fairly common sense theory to reaching a more pointed conclusion through analyzing examples. I’m still not quite sure how to put the feeling you gave me into words, but when I finished you I was left asking myself, “So, what?” What is the point of all this analysis? What is the solution? Could there ever be a solution? You seemed to be missing a chapter at the end that wrapped everything up in a way that made this theory feel more profound and connected to something the reader could change in their own lives. A call to action, maybe.
Overall, I appreciate you for your dedication to transparency, asking questions, and seeking truth–and, when necessary, admitting that we might never really know the entire truth in certain situations. Yet you seemed to be missing an overarching conclusion that really packed a punch, that answered some of our questions or that offered a solution to this complex problem. Nevertheless, you were well worth reading and have stuck in the back of my mind for some time.
Hope you find what you’re looking for, Talking to Strangers.