Talking To Strangers – Book Review
November 19, 2019 8:00 AM EST | 20 min read
This fall, Malcolm Gladwell—the author of several bestselling books like Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point—is back with a brand new book called Talking To Strangers.
Just like he did with many of his past books, Gladwell digs deep into the past, pulls from the latest findings from different branches of science, draws from psychology research, pulls from criminology studies, and uses real life data to back up his ideas.
But unlike his other work, this book is much darker and more controversial than all of his other books.
Talking to Strangers might actually be Gladwell’s darkest and most controversial book yet.
He touches on lots of issues that are currently plaguing society and dividing people across the country such as police brutality, suicides, and sexual assaults.
His main point is this: Many of the worst problems, disasters, and tragedies in our society result from miscommunication and misunderstandings between strangers.
If we can change the way we think about, interact with, and talk to strangers, maybe we can prevent more of these tragedies from happening in the first place.
At the beginning of the book, he explains that the tragic deaths of black people across America at the hands of the police—people like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott—sparked his desire to write Talking To Strangers.
Although some of the police officers that were involved in those situations have been fired, Gladwell still feels deeply unsatisfied.
He does not believe that the underlying issues that created these tragic deaths have been resolved.
All of those deaths involved miscommunication between strangers.
In every one of those situations, two strangers had an interaction, something went terribly wrong, and innocent person died for no apparent reason.
Talking to Strangers is Gladwell’s attempt to address this problem.
In this book, Gladwell points out 4 types of miscommunication that take place between strangers, leading to conflict, disaster, and tragedy—4 mistakes that can help police officers avoid making tragic mistakes that take the lives of innocent people like Sandra Bland.
These 4 ideas can also help you as an individual, regardless of what role you play in society, avoid conflict and catastrophe when you deal with strangers.
Whetheryou are a police officer, a judge, part of the criminal justice system, aparent, or come from any other walk of life, these are 4 mistakes that youshould avoid when dealing with strangers.
1) WeStruggle to Realize When a Stranger is Deceiving Us
Gladwell makes a strong case that human beings are generally not good at detecting when we are being lied to, deceived, manipulated, or scammed.
He provides examples from the present and the past to prove this point.
He describes how, dozens of Cuban and Eastern European spies were able to deceive and manipulate the CIA in the 1980’s over the course of decades.
The CIA thought theses spies were working for us.
They were actually double agents working for the other side.
Even with all of their polygraph tests, rigorous background checks, and strict policies, even the CIA could not always tell when they are being lied to.
None of us are immune to being deceived and lied to by a stranger, not even those of us who are trained to detect deception.
Gladwell also uses Neville Chamberlain as an example.
Neville Chamberlain was the British prime minister during World War II.
Chamberlain, his foreign secretary, and another British diplomat—all of whom were seasoned and dedicated—traveled to Germany to meet up with Adolf Hitler and talk him out of instigating the Second World War.
Chamberlain even convinced him to sign a document stating that he would not invade Czechoslovakia, a provocation that could instigate the war.
They thought they could read Hitler.
They thought Hitler was rational and didn’t want to go to war.
They took his word for it.
They could not have been more wrong.
Hitler instigated that war only months after he signed that document.
And the whole world suffered because of it.
Itwas a disaster.
Gladwell also describes a fascinating psychology experiment that investigated if people could detect whether or not someone was lying.
A psychologist named Tim Levine conducted an experiment where he asked participants to take a quiz for a cash prize.
Each person took the quiz with a partner, who was actually an actor.
Their fellow quiz taker was in on the experiment.
During the quiz, the instructor would leave the room and the partner would then encourage the participant to cheat on the quiz.
About 30% of the participants ended up cheating.
After the quiz was over, Levine would then sit down with each of them and ask them whether or not they cheated, while recording the whole thing on camera.
Some of the cheaters lied to Levine, while others told the truth.
Levine proceeded to show these videotapes to people of all backgrounds to see if they could determine whether or not the person in the video was a liar or a truth-teller.
The results were surprising.
They found that people were only able to detect a liar 56% of the time.
44% of the time, people were unable to identify whether or not someone was lying.
Levine came to the conclusion that we are pretty good at identifying when some one is telling the truth.
But people are generally bad at identifying when someone is lying.
Levine even brought in several seasoned law enforcement agents with 15 years or more of interrogation experience to participate in his lying detection study.
After showing them the videotapes, Levine noticed that the law enforcement agents were just as bad at identifying innocence versus guilt as anybody else, if not worse.
When the interrogators watched tapes of liars who acted sincere, the interrogators were only able to identify 14% of the liars.
Eventhe people in charge of determining who is innocent and who is guilty in oursociety are just a bad as anyone else at detecting a liar.
Whether it’s Neville Chamberlain, New York City judges, law enforcement agents, or everyday individuals, Gladwell makes a strong argument that people generally struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty, intent, and character whether they meet them only once or several times.
We are generally quicker to judge others than we are to judge ourselves.
We think we know others better than they know us.
And we tend to judge strangers based on clues, ideas, and biases that don’t actually mean anything.
2) ByDefault, We Assume Strangers are Telling the Truth
Here’sanother cardinal mistake that we often make when dealing with strangers: Wetend to assuming that the people we are dealing with are honest andtrustworthy, even if we don’t personally know them.
This is a tough problem to avoid because it’s in our nature.
It is human nature to assume that the people we are dealing with, even complete strangers who we’ve never met before, are being honest with us.
If we didn’t have this social trust, the world would not be able to function.
It’s in our best interest to believe the strangers we are interacting with a trustworthy people.
Tim Levine’s quiz-taking experiment that I described above is a great example of this.
Every single participant in the first part of that experiment was paired up with an actor who encouraged them to cheat on the quiz.
The participants never realized the other quiz taker was an actor, not even once.
Every one of them assumed that their fellow quiz-taker was being honest.
That’s a tendency that all humans have.
Gladwell argues that we generally believe, by default, that people are honest.
Then we only stop assuming someone is honest when our doubts rise to the point where we can no longer explain them.
People will believe someone, even if there are red flags and doubts, because there aren’t enough red flags and doubts.
For the average person, just one or two doubts are not enough to convince them that someone is being dishonest.
Gladwelluses 3 different real-life examples of liars, predators, and monsters whovictimized dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people to prove this point:Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and Larry Nassar.
Bernie Madoff created and ran the biggest Ponzi scheme in world history, for decades.
He defrauded over 4000 investors of over $60 billion.
Plenty of different people had doubts about Madoff, including hedge fund investors, investment banks, and even the SEC.
But for decades all of these people generally assumed that Bernie was being honest because they didn’t see enough red flags.
Just like Madoff, Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar were liars and predators.
They were both sexual predators who victimized young people and their families.
Sandusky was a defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team who ran a charity that supposedly aimed to help young boys from troubled backgrounds.
Larry Nassar was the official physician for the USA women’s gymnastics team.
Both Sandusky and Nassar used their positions of power to sexually assault people over a span of decades.
In both situations, there were enablers—university officials, administrators, coaches, and even parents of the victims—who heard the accusations that Sandusky and Nassar were abusing the children.
In both cases, most of the people who knew what was happening did nothing to stop it, for decades.
Both Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar had excuses, justifications, and stories that they used to deny the accusations.
Sandusky used his charity for troubled young boys as a front for his crimes and Nassar used an actual medical procedure called the “pelvic floor dysfunction”—which does involve the physician inserting fingers into the vagina to massage tendons—as a front for sexually assaulting over 250 different young women during their appointments with him.
Sadly, the parents, university officials, and administrators took their word for it.
They believed the denials.
They assumed that these strangers were telling the truth.
They had doubts about Sandusky and Nassar, but not enough doubts.
There weren’t enough suspicions to get them to take action.
As humans, our default assumption is that strangers are being honest with us.
Many people will choose to believe a stranger, even in a situation where your money is at stake, the safety of your children is at stake, and you have a lot to lose.
Gladwellobserves that people tend to default to truth in situations where there’s alikely option and another option that seems impossible or too painful to evenimagine.
Deception detection was never a skill that human beings needed for survival.
In order for society to function and to thrive, we have always needed to assume that strangers are telling us the truth.
Communication, social coordination, and society at large all depend on trust.
We need to trust each other in order to cooperate, communicate, interact with, and live with each other.
Before reading Talking To Strangers, I was appalled by the fact that Penn State officials, Michigan State officials, and even the victim’s own parents had enabled these sexual predators to destroy the lives of their victims.
I could not understand how anybody could choose to believe a sexual predator over their own daughter.
After reading Talking To Strangers, I can see that these parents and those officials were actually just victims of their human nature.
They were wrong for what they did, for sure.
But I understand what caused their confusion.
It is human nature is to believe that the strangers we are dealing with are trustworthy.
And sometimes that backfires on us in terrible ways.
If weassumed that every football team’s defensive coordinator or every physician wasa sexual predator, society would never be able to function.
3) WeFalsely Think We Can Accurately Read Someone’s Emotions & Character Basedon Their Demeanor
Gladwellobserves that we, as humans, generally tend to think we can make sense of astranger’s behavior based on their demeanor.
We think we can determine what kind of person somebody is based on their eyes, facial expressions, and body language.
Gladwell points out that even though this may seem like a reliable way to judge people, it can actually be extremely inaccurate—for more reasons than one.
Gladwelldescribes some experiments where social scientists traveled to Mozambique andthe Trobriand Islands to show isolated tribes of people pictures of humanfacial expressions to see if their interpretations of these faces matched upwith the way the rest of the world perceives human facial expressions.
It turns out that the facial expressions that the majority of the world uses to represent anger, happiness, anxiety, fear, or surprise are not universal.
The islanders interpreted the facial expressions totally differently from how the rest of the world does.
In our culture, raising your eyebrows and widening your eyes is supposed to mean someone is surprised or shocked.
We take this for granted.
But the stereotypes of what we think surprise looks like are largely dependent on culture, television, and movies.
Gladwell describes another experiment where German psychologists caught people off guard and filmed their facial expressions.
95% of the people who were caught off guard did not drop their jaws, raise their eyebrows, and widen their eyes.
Surprise, joy, anger, love, fear, hostility, and distress do not actually look the way that we think they do.
Facial expressions and body language don’t always correlate to how someone actually feels.
Gladwell uses Amanda Knox as another example of this.
Amanda Knox was an American exchange student living in Italy who was accused and convicted of murdering her roommate.
People around the world assumed Amanda was guilty because of her seemingly cold, unemotional, and remorseless behavior after the murder took place.
Since she seemed like a murderer, people assumed she was a murderer, even though they didn’t have any real evidence.
Eventually the Italian courts set Amanda free from prison after she served 4 years and declared her innocent.
Amanda was thrown in jail and charged with murder because she acted guilty, not because she was.
And when strangers act a certain way, humans tend to believe that’s who they actually are.
But demeanor is not an accurate representation of someone’s character.
Guilty people sometimes behave like they are innocent.
Innocent people sometimes get nervous and shifty, as if they are guilty.
Liars sometimes appear to be honest.
And honest people sometimes seem as though they are lying.
Appearances just don’t always match reality.
Strangers are complicated, complex, and incredibly difficult to read.
So our criminal justice system and society at large sometimes locks up innocent people like Amanda Knox for crimes they did not commit because they acted guilty.
And the world sometimes allows predators and monsters like Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and Larry Nassar to roam free for decades because they seemed to be innocent.
Judgingstrangers by appearances leads to all kinds of terrible problems, issues, anddisasters.
So the next time you’re about to judge someone based off of their facial expression, body language, or demeanor, take a step back.
And consider the idea your interpretation of that person’s demeanor could be totally wrong.
4) WeFail to Think About the Context the Stranger is Coming From
Thefourth cardinal mistake that people make when it comes to strangers is failing toconsider the context and point of view that the stranger is coming from.
Gladwell uses the term “coupling” to describe how people are influenced by their context.
He explains how 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year.
Half of them use handguns to shoot themselves.
Suicides in the United States are coupled with the availability of handguns.
People in our society tend to assume that a mentally distressed person who is attempting suicide will figure out a way to do so regardless of the circumstance or situation.
Malcolm explains that suicides, like all other human behavior, are largely influenced by context.
If the US banned handguns, it could save an estimated 10,000 lives per year or many more.
Gladwell explains how the Golden Gate Bridge has been the location for over 1500 suicides since it opened in San Francisco in 1937.
More people have committed suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge in that timespan than any other location in the world.
A psychologist named Richard Seiden followed up with 515 people who attempted suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, but were restrained unexpectedly.
Only 25 out of the 515 people who attempted suicide actually followed through with killing themselves later on.
Their decisions to commit suicide were coupled to the location of the Golden Gate Bridge at that specific time.
Their decisions to take their lives depended on the context.
Contextplays a huge part in determining human behavior.
Gladwell goes on to talk about how a criminologist named David Weisburd looked at crime statistics in cities across the United States and around the world about 30 years ago.
And he discovered that roughly 50% of the crimes took place on 3% of the streets.
That means the grand majority of the crimes were taking place on certain streets and blocks, hotspots.
Something about the context of those specific locations was influencing people to commit crimes there.
He called it the Law of Crime Concentration.
This law still applies today.
Criminals will not commit crime in every single context, on every street, on every block, or in every neighborhood.
And people will not always commit suicide in every single context.
Context matters, when it comes to everything.
So before you judge a stranger, think about the context and the point of view that they are coming from.
As Gladwell explains, the stranger’s environment is a bigger determinant that we often think: “Don’t look at the stranger and jump to conclusions.
Look at the stranger’s world.”
How aMiscommunication Between Strangers lead to the Tragic Death of Sandra Bland
Gladwellends this book by explaining how some of these ideas played a part in thetragic death of Sandra Bland in 2015—and all of the similar tragedies involvingpolice taking the lives of innocent people.
At the time, Sandra Bland was on her way to start a new job at Prairie View University in Texas.
The officer, named Brian Encinia, drove up behind her.
And, as you’re supposed to do, she got out of his way by switching to different lane.
Brian pulled her over for failing to indicate that she was switching lanes.
Video footage shows that Sandra was very irritated because the only reason she needed to switch lanes in the first place was because Brian drove up behind her.
He pulled her over for an infraction that he was the cause of.
To calm her nerves, she lit up a cigarette.
Brian asked her to put it out.
Since it isn’t against the law for her to smoke a cigarette, she refused.
The officer then demanded for her to step out of the car.
Sandra refused to step out.
Brian lost his temper and tried to forcefully pull her out of the car, pulled a gun on her, and called for back up.
They arrested her and took her to jail.
3 days later she committed suicide by hanging in her jail cell.
Gladwellpoints out that the officer was guilty of many of the cardinal miscommunicationmistakes discussed through this book.
Brianassumed that he could understand Sandra’s emotions and character throughlooking at her demeanor.
Sandra was clearly upset, agitated, and irritated when the cop pulled her over.
In interviews from the investigation that took place after she died, Brian explained that he thought Sandra’s agitation was an indication that she might be a dangerous criminal, that she might be hiding a weapon.
But he was wrong.
He completely misread her emotions and character.
There was a long list of reasons why Sandra was upset at the time.
Sandra had already been through a long list of painful encounters with the police.
She had 10 interactions with the police as an adult that lead to $8000 in fines that she was still in debt for.
She was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because she lost a baby in the past.
And that pain of losing a child had previously led her to try to attempt suicide.
She was moving to a new town, leaving behind a troubled past, and starting a new job.
And she felt that Brian was about to ruin this new start over a minor infraction, that he had caused
So she was upset for a big variety of reasons.
But since Brian didn’t know any of her backstory, he thought that she was acting like a criminal.
And he didn’t think about the context that Sandra was in.
The area where he pulled over Sandra was not a high crime or high drug environment.
There was no reason to assume that she might be a criminal.
Gladwell makes an argument that today’s police officers are using overly aggressive tactics—such as pulling lots of people over for any reason they can come up with in an attempt to confiscate weapons—that only make sense in high-crime areas.
The problem is, they are using these aggressive tactics in every context as opposed to the areas where they would really be effective.
Police officers, and all citizens in our world, must pay more attention to context.
When we do, there will be less tragedies of miscommunication and less innocent lives taken.
HowCan We Apply This to Our Daily Lives?
So what can we do to prevent mistakes, tragedies, and catastrophes like this from happening?
How can we prevent this tragic miscommunication between strangers?
Policeofficers, judges, law enforcement, interrogators, people involved in thecriminal justice system, and all people of all colors, shapes, and sizes can stopmaking snap judgments about others based off of their facial expressions anddemeanor.
And pay attention to context.
Before you judge, pay attention to the environment that the stranger is coming from and living in.
And understand that people are not always who they appear to be.
Try your best to stop assessing people only by their looks and behavior.
Realize that strangers are incredibly complex and difficult to understand.
You cannot accurately read someone’s character, intent, or emotions based on their demeanor.
And keep in mind that strangers are not always being honest with you.
Not everyone is trustworthy.
If you see even one red flag or warning sign about a stranger’s actions, it is best to investigate to figure out what is really going on, before it’s too late.
Byunderstanding and avoiding these crucial mistakes when talking to strangers, wecan avoid these tragedies and make this a better world.
January 21, 2020 at 10:13 PM
Good synopsis of the book. Thanks for clear review.