Self Help

Book Review: Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

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I know the name Malcolm Gladwell but I am not familiar with his work. This is the first of his books I have ever read. A reader of ours asked when I was going to read the book and I was hesitant because it is not usually the type of book I go for, but I figured I could switch things up a bit and go ahead and read it.

Talking to Strangers is basically a social science report written in an easy to digest narrative. It examines what happens to a society when it does not know how to talk to strangers. The book begins with the story of Sandra Bland, the African American woman who was arrested for a traffic violation and found dead in her cell, 3 days later after committing suicide.

It explores some well known stories such as stories that involved Jerry Sandusky, Amanda Knox, Brock Turner etc. and also explores some government related instances involving Hitler and Ana Montes (who even though a traitor, I low-key think was a bad ass). Gladwell’s main point is that we have difficulty communicating with a person we do not know or understand mainly because we are not privy to the full background of what makes up who they are.

One of the examples is the relationship between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. Neville believes Hitler when he says he is not aiming for war even though he met him in person and had a chance to get a read on him, even when people like Winston Churchill believed he was. It exemplified Gladwell’s point that the people who were right about Hitler were those who knew the least about him personally and the people who were wrong about Hitler were the ones who had talked with him for hours. On the flip, Amanda Knox was innocent but was presumed guilty because her actions didn’t seem like how an innocent person would ask.

Early into the book, I was ready to drop it because Gladwell was jumping all over the place and I couldn’t quite get the point he was trying to make. It took me a second to realize that the main issue with this book is its title. It really isn’t about strangers and is really more about the different ways of communication. Gladwell seemed like he was stuck with this title or focus and was trying to make his stories fit into it. The minute I let that go and stopped feeling like I had to be convinced about something, I began to enjoy it. Funny enough, in an interview Gladwell says he is not trying to convince anyone either way.

As mentioned above, I leaned in and began to enjoy the stories and it was so informative and fun at the same time. Even though I had heard of the high profile cases, it was nice to get full picture and behind the scenes. I learned about things I did not know about and found them fascinating.

I audio’d this book and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am glad I did. I really liked how for most of the stories, we heard real audio. For example, with Sandra Bland we had real audio of her interaction with the cop and also the cop’s interaction. It added an element of realism to it. It also had Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” as its soundtrack that played at interludes.

I enjoyed the last few chapters of the book that talks about coupling and how humans are married to an idea.  For example, if a person decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge and a safety net is included, you’d think that they’d just find another way but Gladwell says stats show the chances of that are low, since they are married more to the how. I questioned the idea because I’d have thought people would be more married to being dead than the method of how they achieved it but the story examples he gave fit his narrative, so I guess.

Ironically, my least favorite chapter was the one that used the show, Friends as a centerpiece to demonstrate facial expressions. I liked how the book was book ended with the Sandra Bland story since it was how it began. It was a nice book end situation. Gladwell is not neutral when he speaks about the Bland story and is one of the few times you know where he stands.

Overall, even though the book kinda lacked focus and Gladwell’s point didn’t really apply to just talking to strangers, I have to say that I really enjoyed this. I think it is worth your time and you’d definitely leave with a lot more knowledge that when you started.


1 thought on “Book Review: Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. It’s really a good book, and I read it twice and it was only at the second time of reading that I finally figured out why I found it disjointed initially (which is something you mentioned, I was fixated on the word ‘stranger’).
    I learnt about a lot things I didn’t know, my fave was Ana Montes (the double agent).
    You are also spot on with Gladwell’s stance on the Bland case sorta obvious, I disagree with his conclusion on the Bland case and the Brock Turner one.

    Like you mentioned, it’s a good book. I enjoyed it, and will probably still read it one more time before the end of the year.


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