2021 Reading List: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Let me start by saying, I love Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I own a bunch of them, I’ve reread some (which is something I don’t do often), and I recommend them to anyone who’s interested.

That being said, I thought this book was going to be a little different. I thought this book would be about the chance encounters that human have with strangers every day – the barista at the coffee shop, the chic mom shopping at Target, the neighbor walking his dog, etc. I thought it would be more about the awkwardness that humans feel in certain situations with strangers, the way we interpret body language or facial expressions, the reason we’re afraid to ask for someone’s phone number even if we felt we had a great conversation with that particular stranger.

Someone should write that book.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell, was actually an analysis of very certain types of interactions with strangers.

In typical Gladwell style, the book begins with a conundrum. A situation that seemingly doesn’t make sense. An interaction gone horribly wrong in the most infuriating way possible. Gladwell spends the rest of the book giving us examples that explain why different aspects of that interaction happened the way they did.

The conundrum is the story of Sandra Bland. She was a black woman, stopped by a white police officer for a traffic violation. What happened in their exchange escalated quickly as she questioned his actions and he allegedly mistook her questions for resistance, suspicious activity, hiding evidence, and ultimately guilt of a crime. But he had no proof of any of that. So Malcom Gladwell dives into why he might have jumped to those conclusions during this interaction with a stranger.

Throughout the book, Gladwell tells stories to explain the following

  • How people default to believing in truth (the CIA was completely fooled by Fidel Castro and his undercover spies)
  • How people interact with strangers when they’re drunk (as in the Brock Turner rape case)
  • How people decide to commit suicide (Sylvia Plath killed herself at what may have been the peak of her writing career)
  • How pedophiles get away with it for so long (people knew about Jerry Sandusky for years before he was turned in)
  • How people think we should be reacting to situations based on television sitcoms (the facial expressions of surprise or anger that we think people should make aren’t the ones people actually make)

What he’s trying to say is that, when a stranger tells us something, we automatically believe they are telling the truth. We have very little reason to believe they’re lying. And if we might think they’re lying, we’re probably wrong. Humans are bad lie detectors. Even if a lie detector tells us someone is lying, we use other cues to draw our own conclusions anyway.

When people get drunk, they have lost their filter. They have lost the schema that reminds them that something is inappropriate. They have lost the social stigmas that would have stopped them from doing the thing that they’re about to do. If they were sober, they’d be thinking about the longer-term repercussions of such an action. But when drunk, they have no long-term thinking, there are no repercussions. Getting drunk is what removes the line between not-a-rapist and rapist. Someone who wouldn’t normally rape a person when sober in broad daylight gets drunk and rapes a woman. Does it excuse their action? No. But at the end of the day, people shouldn’t binge drink.

Because Sandra Bland committed suicide three days after going to jail (for no reason), Gladwell also explored some theories around suicide. I’m not sure exactly how these theories apply to talking to strangers, but it applies to the story. Gladwell says that people who commit suicide do so because the easy means of doing it are readily available. It’s not necessarily because they are so depressed that they would have found a way to end their life no matter what. In fact, he says that if you took away the means, then suicide rates drop. Those people don’t go on to find another way. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in her oven to kill herself just because it was there. If she didn’t have that type of gas oven, she would have gone on living, even if her life was miserable.

Now the pedophile situation I think could be applicable to other types of interactions as well. If you think you know a person and have heard what a great guy that person is, but then you think you see them do something horrific, do you believe what you know to be true (he’s a great guy) or do you risk your own and others’ reputation on possibly crying wolf to turn him in? Do you get involved? How involved do you get? You tell someone and then wipe your hands clean, repeating to yourself that you did your due diligence, now it’s out of your control. What if you think you see someone shoplifting but that someone is a mom with a little kid in tow and you know she comes to this store all the time? Do you believe what you know to be true, that she’s a mom who does right by her kids, or do you risk ruining a family by turning her in because it’s what you think you saw?

The part that I found most interesting was the story about the Friends episode. We can all picture them right now- Ross and Chandler and Rachel and Phoebe and Monica and Joey – their over-reactions and extreme personalities are what made the show funny. Their outrage, their shock, their love, their surprise. But what Gladwell tells us here is that the way the characters’ faces are expressing their emotions is not the true way our faces express these same emotions in real-life situations. This is where I feel like he could have expanded on his whole “talking to strangers” theme. Understanding nonverbal communication is important, so why are sitcoms showing us completely wrong reactions? We’ll never learn how to be emotionally in tune with others or empathetic if our only lessons in reading other people comes from television and media.

Malcolm Gladwell is able to apply these lessons and others to the Sandra Bland mystery in order to determine the true reason it went so very wrong that day. I’ll leave that up to you to read and figure out.

But like I said, this book wasn’t specifically about talking to strangers. It won’t help you at your next networking event. There are no tips for your next awkward encounter at your local gym. You probably won’t be able to pull any tricks out for your next job interview. But as always, Gladwell’s book did not disappoint.

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