Talking to strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Research based writing is the forte of Malcolm Gladwell, whose books like Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and David & Goliath shook the contemporary idealists inside out. His theories, like the 10000 hour theory, were based on solid research and hence his books (and he) won credibility in a short time. 


Author : Malcolm Gladwell
Originally Published : 2019
Publication : Little Brown
Pages : 400
Genre(s) :
Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Psychology, Sociology

In his book ‘Talking to strangers’, Gladwell, delves into the dark topic of abuse at the hands of those whom we talk but have no clue about who they are. Case after dark case, Gladwell shows us how a dialogue with a stranger does not always end up enabling us to ‘know the stranger well’. Deep down, you are reminded again and again of what happened with George Floyd who was killed by a white policeman in broad daylight. Like the case of African American Sandra Bland who was rounded up on the highway by a policeman for missing a signal and what followed was an altercation between them as she refused to come out of the car and lit her cigarette while he insisted she did. The Police officer Brian Encinia who was courteous at first, turned hostile with her being adamant.

So how is talking to strangers different?

Taking examples of how the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and Aztec ruler Montezuma II misunderstood the dialogue between the two- the former landing on Montezuma’s soil and conversing with interpreters, misunderstanding the faux humility of the ruler for subservience. It ended up in the Spanish capturing the Aztec empire, thereby changing the course of history forever.

Or the case of the Cuban sly who tried to escape to the US embassy in Vienna and boasting of knowing all US spies who doubled up as Cuban spies too, only to be outwitted by Fidel Castro who released a series of videos to show how he had bored holes into the US intelligence.

Gladwell asks us how a judge is supposed to grant bail to a person without ever meeting him, just based on facts presented for a few moments? Don’t we all do that at some point in time? When we recruit people based on a couple of meetings? Or when we trust our gadgets to the dealer at first sight?

Then come the academic research, like the ones by Psychologist Levine who’s experiments with trivial pursuits game and its resultant cheating by the subject was the topic of much debate and study by other psychologists and Gladwell.  How do people believe some and don’t believe others?  Like the Holy Fool in Russian folklore, who speaks what he feels, the truth even, but is not believed by anyone until the truth is revealed finally. Like the emperor’s clothes. What made the king in the story believe the tailors who sold him the invisible dress, until a small boy shrieks that the emperor is wearing nothing. Do human beings have the advantage of assuming that strangers are truthful? Like the kids who did not feel anything amiss in the behavior of pedophile jerry Sandusky, who was arrested after 11 years of being suspected to be one. Till that time, he roamed a free man because no one came forward to say that they did not trust him. In case after case, you read horrendous crimes being inflicted upon unsuspecting young kids who don’t understand whom to trust and believe the perpetrators.

Gladwell makes some profound statements on the way, like when he declares that human beings are not bad lie detectors, they are just bad lie detectors in situations when the person being judges is a mismatch. That’s how we fall prey to Ponzi schemes, we are gullible to phone calls that ask for our personal details in the guise of a trustworthy position. We live the Friends fallacy. The people who talked with Hitler for hours were the ones who were precisely wrong about him!

 Key takeaways

  1. Gladwell has come up with a complex subject and given his penchant for research, this one seems to be a tad off track for someone who has been focused on his research topics. However, it doesn’t disappoint you in telling that people wrongly make impressions about strangers, based on certain notions.
  2. It’s not always the uneducated and the immature that make mistakes in knowing those who are unknown, it could even be the others
  3. The way the human mind figures out whom to trust and on what basis is a complex algorithm which even psychologists have yet to figure out

Why I recommend this book

Because deep down, each one of us feel vulnerable for ourselves and our loved ones when it comes to dealing with people beyond our inner circle. Whom to trust with the kids who have to move out of home for education? Whom to trust when it comes to acquaintances and associates? Are people the same that they appear? Do bad people really appear bad all the time? These questions are pertinent and needed someone like Gladwell to answer. The book may be heavy at times, but Gladwell’s books have never been easy. Try this when you are not rushed.

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