Talking to Strangers: A Review


This volume by the popular storyteller, Malcom Gladwell (2019) is not the stuff of his earlier books, such as Outliers or David and Goliath. They entertain and engage readers with fascinating, hidden and overlooked stories of success (Outliers) and survival (David and Goliath).

Talking to Strangers is mostly an unsettling journey, exposing the human afflictions of deceit, gullibility, and hubris. We don't know how to interpret strangers very well, and much less than we think we do.

Why question the conventional wisdom and accepted institutional practices?? Because they often fail us to really know a stranger. One example: a computer can do a better job determining whether a perpetrator will repeat a crime than the judge, who relies on looking the offender square in the eye. 

Some "misunderstandings" lead to more tragic consequences than others. Many of the stories Gladwell tells have  terrible, hopeless endings. Even for the sake of his argument, the volume lacks appropriateness and discretion by combining brief discussions of:
  • Fraternities, alcohol and rape (Brock Turner) 
  • Years of sexual assault of young boys (Penn State), 
  • Trusting Hitler (Chamberlain)
  • The Sandra Bland tragedy
along with a dash of:
  • Friends, the sitcom
  • Real vs. fake facial expressions
What does the book offer? It gives the reader a sharp critique of the assumptions we have and the judgments we make about strangers. Gladwell substantiates his premise that much more humility and restraint is needed in truly knowing a person we do not know.

But we are not provided a way forward, a social antidote. In this, Gladwell is part- sociologist, providing only a well-researched description of the problem. The only person's thoughts and intentions we will ever really know are our own. But that I already knew.

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