Friday, January 24, 2020

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 extreme success (Outliers) and unlikely 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.

Pausing our flippant judgements of others we don’t know is reasonable and helpful on the personal level, whether they be positive or negative conclusions. But our culture is not a patient, wait-and-see culture. Gladwell  falls short in providing a way forward, a social antidote for the institutions discussed in the book. 

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