TALKING TO STRANGERS by Malcolm Gladwell: An obvious discovery?

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.

Yours,

HOLLY

8 Replies to “TALKING TO STRANGERS by Malcolm Gladwell: An obvious discovery?”

  1. I wanted to listen to this one (and still will) but I didn’t know it was quite dark! Good to know that before going in!
    Great review!

    (www.evelynreads.com)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think his conclusions went a little farther than, “It’s hard to read other people.” I think the most important part was that the officer in question had actually been trained to react as he did, pulling over a woman for a pretextual traffic stop, assuming her guilt from the start, and then assuming her nervousness was “proof” of her guilt. What I got out of the book is that there are systemic issues in how policing is done and how police are trained. The officer should never have pulled Bland over in the first place, because police shouldn’t be doing pretextual traffic stops everywhere all the time–that’s how they erode public trust in the police. He should have been focused on high crime areas during peak crime times. Yes, he did a lot wrong, and not all officers would have reacted as he did–he escalated the situation when he did not need to. On the other hand, he seems to be working in a system where that kind of behavior may too often be rewarded rather than reprimanded.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Personally, I felt as though his conclusion was that it’s difficult and even sometimes impossible for us to read people when what their body language portrays (trustworthiness/suspicion) contradicts what they’re saying (truth/falsehood). What I got out of the book is that we train police officers the best we can given our current understanding of how to detect truth and lies, yet even that isn’t enough; however, we have not yet developed a better way considering this issue is pervasive in other areas of society besides law enforcement. He may have used law enforcement as a convenient framework, but I think the issue is a broader societal one.

      Like

  3. I loved this review, I liked it so much more than the classic format.
    I haven’t read this one yet but I have seen it in a lot of places and I keep telling myself I will get to it. Luckily if I read it now I will know what to expect ( I honestly didn’t expect it to be dark)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s