Selected Reads

Review of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers was on my wish list for several months before I finally decided to purchase the audible version and listen to it. Something about the book’s title picked my curiosity and it is probably the word ‘strangers’ which, coming from a background of discourse analysis, struck me as itself stange. The word stranger is one of those problematic concepts whose meaning is, to a large extent, dependent on the context.

Apparently, by strangers, Gladwell, as described in the subtitle ,means those we don’t know. But still this explanatory statement is too generic and does not do the semantic complexity of the word justice. Who knows, maybe this semantic confusion triggered by the word was all intentional by the author. Anyway, I won’t dwell long on this point and I would rather proceed to the discussion of the contents of the book. 

What Talking to Strangers is all about?

The central argument underlying Talk to Strangers is that strangers are not easy to talk to and understand. This is the case because we humans share a number of traits that hinder such understanding including the fact we ‘default to truth’ and that we take transparency to be the norm. We give people the benefit of the doubt and go with the instinct that they are telling the truth. Gladwell, through a series of stories involving police violence, pedophilia, suicide, espionage, toruture, and campus rape, among others, shows the flaws with this kind of reasoning and explains how it can, in certain cases lead to tragic concequences.

Barring the Neville Chamberlain story, almost all of the other stories Gladwell drew on to build his argument were in the American context. There is the story of Brock Turner, a first-year student in Stanford university whose encounter with a woman in a party turned into a crime. The story of Jerry Sandusky, former assistant coach of the football team of Pennsylvania State University, who was incarcerated for charges of pedophilia. There is also the story of a high ranking CIA double agent who  was working for Cuban intelligence and went undetected for many years.

Gladwell also included the stories of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath, “the false conviction of the American exchange student Amanda Knox”, Sandra Bland’s suicide in, and many more. In all of these stories, as Gladwell explained,  “the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong”. Gladwell discussed each of these stories and uncovered a number of key factors that are at the crux of the problem such as our instinctual default to truth approach, transparency, the illusion of asymmetric insight, jumping hastily to conclusions (or judgment) among others.  Let’s illustrate these points with a sample of the stories included in his book.

Default to truth

Gladweel argues that our instinctual default to truth approach can sometimes hinder our understanding and lead to miscommunication and even tragic results. Once case in point here is that of Larry Nasser, former USA Gymnastics doctor who was found guilty of sexual abuse crimes as well as child pornography. When Nassar’ s crimes were first reported by the Indianapolis Star, his long time friend Gonczar, as Gladwell asserted, was certain Nassar would be acquitted.

She had known him for many years and she was unable to fathom the situation because she defaulted to truth, the one she knows and believes in that Nassar can’t do that. Obviously, with the mounting incriminating evidence and the court’s conviction, Gonczar opinion of the man changed. In her own words when she testified against him in court, Gonczar declared heartfully: “I believed in you always until I couldn’t anymore”. In his comment on  this very statement,  Gladwell described it as “an almost perfect statement of default to truth”.

Sandra Bland story

Gladwell accorded much attention, and for the right reasons,  to the tragic story of Sandra Bland, a victim of police brutality whose arrest video on YouTube shocked the world. On July 10, 2015, Sandra, an African American who just moved to a small Texas town to start a new job at Prairie View  A&M University, was pulled over by the Texas state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change.

The incident which started as a mere routine traffic stop turned into a heated confrontation after Encinia violently arrested Sandra. The whole exchange was captured on both Encinia’s dash-cam and was also filmed by Sandra herself. Three days after her arrest, Sandra was found hanged in a Waller County jail cell. “The death of Sandra Bland”, as Gladwell stated, “ is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers”. 

Transparency

There is also the problem of transparency which can also challenge the way we make sense of strangers. Transparency, as Gladwell defines it, is “the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor-the way they represent themselves on the outside- provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside”. According to Galwdwell’s argument, we fall back on transparency when it is hard for us to understand the other or when we talk to someone we don’t know assuming that their outward behavior represents an accurate picture of who they are. To illustrate this problematic let’s take the story of Chamberlain with Hitler.

Arthur Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from May 193 to May 1940. In his efforts to stop the build up to second world war, Chamberlain met with Hitler to discuss a settlement which later on became known as Munich Agreement by which Hitler was allowed to annex the southern region of Czechoslovakia, Sudetenland, in return for Hitler promise to stop his territorial encroachments in Northern Europe. Chamberlain was manipulated by Hitler’s double handshake which, as Gladwell stated, Hitler reserved for “specially friendly demonstrations”. The unassuming Chamberlain took Hitler’s handshake as an act of transparency, one that communicates itler’s inner feelings. He thought Hitler was sincere and honest when he said he had no other territorial claims other than Sudetenland. Few months later, Hitler invaded Europe. 

Throughout the whole book, Gladwell juggles among these stories pulling lessons and exposing the mishaps that led to tragic consequences. Certainly, Galdwell is definitely a talented storyteller but to what extent his reasoning is convincing remains a matter of debate. I think human behavior is a complex phenomena that can hardly be understood through reductionist and  simplistic reasoning (so as not to say folk psychology) . The way Gladwell talks about understanding human  behavior makes it seem as if it is something out there waiting for scientific analysis to make sense of it. There are several factors involved in the construction of human behavior that Gladwell seemed to overlook. These include race, gender, ideology, religion, socio-cultural considerations, and many more. 

Quotes from Talking to Strangers

Here is a lengthy quote that I found very  interesting in Talking to Strangers. I am curious to know your thoughts.

“Poets die young. That is not just a cliché. The life expectancy of poets, as a group, trails playwrights, novelists, and nonfiction writers by a considerable margin. They have higher rates of “emotional disorders” than actors, musicians, composers, and novelists. And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population. Something about writing poetry appears either to attract the wounded or to open new wounds—and few have so perfectly embodied that image of the doomed genius as Sylvia Plath.”

More sources

Popular books by Malcolm Gladwell:

  • The Tipping Point and Blink,
  • The Tipping Point
  • Blink
  • Outliers
  • What the Dog Saw
  • David and Goliath.