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Talking To Strangers – Book Review

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.

Hismain point is this: Many of the worst problems, disasters, and tragedies in oursociety 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.

talking with strangers book review

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.

Althoughsome of the police officers that were involved in those situations have beenfired, Gladwell still feels deeply unsatisfied. He does not believe that theunderlying issues that created these tragic deaths have been resolved.

Allof those deaths involved miscommunication between strangers. In every one ofthose situations, two strangers had an interaction, something went terriblywrong, and innocent person died for no apparent reason.

Talking to Strangers is Gladwell’s attempt to address this problem.

Inthis book, Gladwell points out 4 types of miscommunication that take placebetween strangers, leading to conflict, disaster, and tragedy—4 mistakes thatcan help police officers avoid making tragic mistakes that take the lives ofinnocent people like Sandra Bland. These 4 ideas can also help you as anindividual, regardless of what role you play in society, avoid conflict andcatastrophe 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

Gladwellmakes a strong case that human beings are generally not good at detecting whenwe are being lied to, deceived, manipulated, or scammed. He provides examplesfrom the present and the past to prove this point.

Hedescribes how, dozens of Cuban and Eastern European spies were able to deceiveand manipulate the CIA in the 1980’s over the course of decades. The CIAthought theses spies were working for us. They were actually double agentsworking for the other side.

Evenwith 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 areimmune to being deceived and lied to by a stranger, not even those of us whoare trained to detect deception.

Gladwellalso uses Neville Chamberlain as an example. Neville Chamberlain was the Britishprime minister during World War II. Chamberlain, his foreign secretary, andanother British diplomat—all of whom were seasoned and dedicated—traveled toGermany to meet up with Adolf Hitler and talk him out of instigating the SecondWorld War. Chamberlain even convinced him to sign a document stating that hewould not invade Czechoslovakia, a provocation that could instigate the war.

Theythought they could read Hitler. They thought Hitler was rational and didn’twant to go to war. They took his word for it. They could not have been more wrong. Hitler instigated that waronly months after he signed that document. And the whole world suffered becauseof it.

Itwas a disaster.

Gladwellalso describes a fascinating psychology experiment that investigated if peoplecould detect whether or not someone was lying. A psychologist named Tim Levineconducted an experiment where he asked participants to take a quiz for a cashprize.

Eachperson took the quiz with a partner, who was actually an actor. Their fellowquiz taker was in on the experiment. During the quiz, the instructor wouldleave the room and the partner would then encourage the participant to cheat onthe quiz. About 30% of the participants ended up cheating. After the quiz wasover, Levine would then sit down with each of them and ask them whether or notthey cheated, while recording the whole thing on camera.

Some of the cheaters lied to Levine, while others told the truth.

Levineproceeded to show these videotapes to people of all backgrounds to see if theycould determine whether or not the person in the video was a liar or atruth-teller. The results were surprising.

Theyfound that people were only able to detect a liar 56% of the time. 44% of thetime, people were unable to identify whether or not someone was lying.

Levinecame to the conclusion that we are pretty good at identifying when some one istelling the truth. But people are generally bad at identifying when someone islying.

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Levineeven brought in several seasoned law enforcement agents with 15 years or moreof interrogation experience to participate in his lying detection study. Aftershowing them the videotapes, Levine noticed that the law enforcement agentswere just as bad at identifying innocence versus guilt as anybody else, if not worse. When the interrogatorswatched tapes of liars who acted sincere, the interrogators were only able toidentify 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.

Weare generally quicker to judge others than we are to judge ourselves. We thinkwe know others better than they know us. And we tend to judge strangers basedon 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.

Thisis a tough problem to avoid because it’sin our nature. It is human nature to assume that the people we are dealingwith, even complete strangers who we’ve never met before, are being honest withus. If we didn’t have this social trust, the world would not be able tofunction. It’s in our best interest to believe the strangers we are interactingwith a trustworthy people.

TimLevine’s quiz-taking experiment that I described above is a great example ofthis. Every single participant in the first part of that experiment was pairedup with an actor who encouraged them to cheat on the quiz. The participantsnever realized the other quiz taker was an actor, not even once. Every one of them assumed that their fellowquiz-taker was being honest.

That’sa tendency that all humans have. Gladwell argues that we generally believe, bydefault, that people are honest. Then we only stop assuming someone is honestwhen our doubts rise to the point where we can no longer explain them.

Peoplewill believe someone, even if there are red flags and doubts, because therearen’t enough red flags and doubts. Forthe average person, just one or two doubts are not enough to convince them thatsomeone 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.

BernieMadoff created and ran the biggest Ponzi scheme in world history, for decades.He defrauded over 4000 investors of over $60 billion. Plenty of differentpeople had doubts about Madoff, including hedge fund investors, investmentbanks, and even the SEC. But for decades all of these people generally assumedthat Bernie was being honest because they didn’t see enough red flags.

Justlike Madoff, Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar were liars and predators. Theywere both sexual predators who victimized young people and their families.Sandusky was a defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team who ran acharity that supposedly aimed to help young boys from troubled backgrounds. LarryNassar was the official physician for the USA women’s gymnastics team.

BothSandusky and Nassar used their positions of power to sexually assault peopleover a span of decades. In both situations, there were enablers—universityofficials, administrators, coaches, and even parents of the victims—who heardthe accusations that Sandusky and Nassar were abusing the children. In bothcases, most of the people who knew what was happening did nothing to stop it, for decades.

BothJerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar had excuses, justifications, and stories thatthey used to deny the accusations. Sandusky used his charity for troubled youngboys as a front for his crimes and Nassar used an actual medical procedurecalled the “pelvic floor dysfunction”—which does involve the physicianinserting fingers into the vagina to massage tendons—as a front for sexuallyassaulting 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 thetruth. They had doubts about Sandusky and Nassar, but not enough doubts. There weren’t enough suspicions to get them totake action.

Ashumans, our default assumption is that strangers are being honest with us. Manypeople will choose to believe a stranger, even in a situation where your moneyis at stake, the safety of your children is at stake, and you have a lot tolose.

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.

Deceptiondetection was never a skill that human beings needed for survival. In order forsociety to function and to thrive, we have always needed to assume thatstrangers are telling us the truth.

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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.

Wethink we can determine what kind of person somebody is based on their eyes,facial expressions, and body language. Gladwell points out that even thoughthis may seem like a reliable way to judge people, it can actually be extremelyinaccurate—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.

Inour culture, raising your eyebrows and widening your eyes is supposed to meansomeone is surprised or shocked. We take this for granted. But the stereotypesof what we think surprise looks like are largely dependent on culture,television, and movies.

Gladwelldescribes another experiment where German psychologists caught people off guardand filmed their facial expressions. 95% of the people who were caught offguard 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 waythat we think they do. Facial expressions and body language don’t alwayscorrelate to how someone actually feels.

Gladwelluses Amanda Knox as another example of this. Amanda Knox was an Americanexchange student living in Italy who was accused and convicted of murdering herroommate.

Peoplearound the world assumed Amanda was guilty because of her seemingly cold,unemotional, and remorseless behavior after the murder took place. Since sheseemed like a murderer, people assumed she was a murderer, even though theydidn’t have any real evidence. Eventually the Italian courts set Amanda freefrom prison after she served 4 years and declared her innocent.

Amandawas thrown in jail and charged with murder because she acted guilty, not because she was. And when strangersact a certain way, humans tend to believe that’s who they actually are. But demeanoris not an accurate representation of someone’s character.

Guiltypeople sometimes behave like they are innocent. Innocent people sometimes getnervous and shifty, as if they are guilty. Liars sometimes appear to be honest.And honest people sometimes seem as though they are lying.

Appearancesjust don’t always match reality. Strangers are complicated, complex, andincredibly difficult to read.

Soour criminal justice system and society at large sometimes locks up innocentpeople like Amanda Knox for crimes they did not commit because they actedguilty. And the world sometimes allows predators and monsters like BernieMadoff, Jerry Sandusky, and Larry Nassar to roam free for decades because they seemedto be innocent.

Judgingstrangers by appearances leads to all kinds of terrible problems, issues, anddisasters.

Sothe next time you’re about to judge someone based off of their facialexpression, body language, or demeanor, take a step back. And consider the ideayour 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.

Gladwelluses the term “coupling” to describe how people are influenced by theircontext. He explains how 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year. Half ofthem use handguns to shoot themselves. Suicides in the United States arecoupled with the availability of handguns.

Peoplein our society tend to assume that a mentally distressed person who isattempting suicide will figure out a way to do so regardless of thecircumstance or situation. Malcolm explains that suicides, like all other humanbehavior, are largely influenced by context. If the US banned handguns, itcould save an estimated 10,000 lives per year or many more.

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Gladwellexplains how the Golden Gate Bridge has been the location for over 1500suicides since it opened in San Francisco in 1937. More people have committedsuicide at the Golden Gate Bridge in that timespan than any other location inthe world.

Apsychologist named Richard Seiden followed up with 515 people who attemptedsuicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, but were restrained unexpectedly. Only 25 outof the 515 people who attempted suicide actually followed through with killingthemselves later on.

Theirdecisions to commit suicide were coupled to the location of the Golden GateBridge at that specific time. Their decisions to take their lives depended onthe context.

Contextplays a huge part in determining human behavior.

Gladwellgoes on to talk about how a criminologist named David Weisburd looked at crimestatistics in cities across the United States and around the world about 30years ago. And he discovered that roughly 50% of the crimes took place on 3% ofthe streets. That means the grand majority of the crimes were taking place oncertain streets and blocks, hotspots. Something about the context of thosespecific locations was influencing people to commit crimes there.

Hecalled it the Law of Crime Concentration. This law still applies today.

Criminalswill 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 everysingle context. Context matters, when it comes to everything.

So beforeyou judge a stranger, think about the context and the point of view that theyare coming from. As Gladwell explains, the stranger’s environment is a biggerdeterminant that we often think: “Don’t look at the stranger and jump toconclusions. 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.

Atthe time, Sandra Bland was on her way to start a new job at Prairie View Universityin Texas. The officer, named Brian Encinia, drove up behind her.  And, as you’re supposed to do, she got out ofhis way by switching to different lane.

Brianpulled her over for failing to indicate that she was switching lanes. Videofootage shows that Sandra was very irritated because the only reason she neededto switch lanes in the first place was because Brian drove up behind her. Hepulled her over for an infraction that he was the cause of.

Tocalm her nerves, she lit up a cigarette. Brian asked her to put it out. Sinceit isn’t against the law for her to smoke a cigarette, she refused.

Theofficer then demanded for her to step out of the car. Sandra refused to stepout. Brian lost his temper and tried to forcefully pull her out of the car,pulled a gun on her, and called for back up.

Theyarrested her and took her to jail. 3 days later she committed suicide byhanging 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.

Sandrawas clearly upset, agitated, and irritated when the cop pulled her over. Ininterviews from the investigation that took place after she died, Brian explainedthat he thought Sandra’s agitation was an indication that she might be adangerous criminal, that she might be hiding a weapon.

Buthe was wrong. He completely misread her emotions and character.

Therewas a long list of reasons why Sandra was upset at the time. Sandra had alreadybeen through a long list of painful encounters with the police. She had 10interactions with the police as an adult that lead to $8000 in fines that shewas still in debt for. She was also suffering from post-traumatic stressdisorder because she lost a baby in the past. And that pain of losing a child hadpreviously led her to try to attempt suicide.

Shewas moving to a new town, leaving behind a troubled past, and starting a newjob. And she felt that Brian was about to ruin this new start over a minorinfraction, that he had caused

Soshe was upset for a big variety of reasons. But since Brian didn’t know any ofher backstory, he thought that she was acting like a criminal.

And hedidn’t think about the context that Sandra was in. The area where he pulledover Sandra was not a high crime or high drug environment. There was no reasonto assume that she might be a criminal.

Gladwellmakes an argument that today’s police officers are using overly aggressivetactics—such as pulling lots of people over for any reason they can come upwith in an attempt to confiscate weapons—that only make sense in high-crimeareas. The problem is, they are using these aggressive tactics in every contextas opposed to the areas where they would really be effective.  

Policeofficers, and all citizens in our world, must pay more attention to context. Whenwe do, there will be less tragedies of miscommunication and less innocent livestaken.

HowCan We Apply This to Our Daily Lives?

Sowhat can we do to prevent mistakes, tragedies, and catastrophes like this fromhappening? 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 payattention to context. Before you judge, pay attention to the environment thatthe stranger is coming from and living in.

Andunderstand that people are not always who they appear to be. Try your best tostop assessing people only by their looks and behavior. Realize that strangersare incredibly complex and difficult to understand. You cannot accurately readsomeone’s character, intent, or emotions based on their demeanor.

Andkeep in mind that strangers are not always being honest with you. Not everyoneis trustworthy. If you see even one red flag or warning sign about a stranger’sactions, 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.

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  1. Linda Dyson

    January 21, 2020 at 10:13 PM

    Good synopsis of the book. Thanks for clear review.

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