“Talking To Strangers: What we should know about the people we don’t know” by Malcom Gladwell

In his most recent book, “Talking to Strangers,” published in 2019, Malcom Gladwell tells us just how bad we are at communicating. He shows us that our instincts can be wildly off-base, that our tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt is riskier than we ever imagined, and that social cues are not only misunderstood but can be weaponized.

The book uses examples of high-profile cases to demonstrate our inability to understand strangers. We see Ana Montes get away as a Cuban spy while having the trust of our own CIA; Jerry Sandusky once a prized Penn State football coach, now a convicted sex offender; Bernie Madoff, who was convicted of major fraud; and others whose actions are disturbing. Gladwell claims that these individuals got away with what they did because of our failure to truly know them.

In the early part of the book Gladwell presents the theory that we can make better judgements about strangers when we have not met them. He gives anecdotes to support this that range from political leaders who knew the littlest about Hitler during World War II seeing him and his motives the most clearly, to computer programs that can more accurately predict the likelihood of a criminal to re-offend than a judge in a courtroom. Sure, our biases can skew reality. But, there is something else that affects us that Gladwell suggests is a main barrier to us being able to know those who we think we know.

“Default to truth,” or Truth-Default Theory is the idea that as humans we assume people are telling the truth either because deception has not crossed our minds, or because there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to prove they are not telling the truth. This theory has stuck with me and I now think about it on a weekly basis. What am I taking to be truth that I should be more skeptical of? Am I really a victim of Truth-Default, or do I have enough of the “Holy Fool” (someone who is skeptical of everyone and everything) in me from being a journalist to have better luck communicating with strangers?

As part of the Truth-Default discussion, Gladwell raises the philosophical question of why we would continue to practice certain social norms that we know lead us to hiring untrustworthy employees, or worse. Gladwell writes, “Our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary. We need the criminal justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human. But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error.”

I struggle with this. In part, I agree with what Gladwell says and agree there is value in accepting some human error so that we can continue to participate in a society that encourages human interaction and forgives mistakes. At the same time, I’m very interested in how artificial intelligence systems can reduce the number of monotonous tasks in our daily lives, provide (at times) more accurate results, and free up time for us to focus on more rewarding activities. In the example that Gladwell provides in which computers are better at predicting the likelihood of a criminal to re-offend while on bail (according to one study), I can’t help but wonder, are we stuck in an old-fashioned approach? When it comes to the safety and well-being of others, are we really willing to be wrong to keep the humanity in the decision-making?

Gladwell states there are three things keeping us from really knowing strangers: 1. Default to truth (always believing someone is being truthful until we have more than enough evidence to believe they are not); 2. Illusion of transparency (making judgements about someone based on how we perceive their facial expressions); and 3. Coupling (we do not understand the context in which they are acting).

Overall, I found the book to paint a pretty dark picture of humanity. The audio recordings of court proceeding reenactments involving child abuse and rape were chilling. While it was not explicitly stated, Gladwell indirectly points out that American decision-makers choose to allow high suicide rates to continue by ignoring the connection between suicide and access to guns.

The book’s exploration of how terrible we are at understanding one another’s words and actions is framed by the recounting of the 2015 incident during which Sandra Bland, a black woman, was pulled over for a minor traffic violation by a police officer in Texas that sadly ended in her dying by suicide in jail. Gladwell begins here and ends here. He sets the tone for “Talking to Strangers” by introducing this incident in the first few pages, giving us a current and frankly terrifying example of how our inability to communicate is something we all need to take note of. To close out the book, Gladwell returns to the incident pointing out – from his perspective – what went wrong during the traffic stop. “If we were more thoughtful as a society — if we were willing to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers — she would not have ended up dead in a Texas jail cell,” he writes. 

I do not always agree with what Gladwell suggests, however, I appreciate that he creates space for us to be self-reflective and curious about how we interact.

I read “Talking To Strangers” at times from the print book and at other times I listened to the audio. I highly recommend the audiobook version of this book. It is a production the likes of a podcast with narration, interview recordings, historical sound clips, and woven throughout is music, “Hell You Talmbout,” Janelle Monáe’s song about police brutality and racial violence.

Want more?

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” can be found at: http://revisionisthistory.com/.

As referenced in the book, the famous Milgrim Shock Experiment: https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html.

Borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s books at the Minot-Sleeper Library:

Talking To Strangers: What we should know about the people we don’t know

Blink: The power of thinking without thinking

David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants

Outliers: The story of success

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