Book review

A review of Gladwell’s “Talking To Strangers”

I was searching online for a book using search terms: “how to talk to people book.” Malcolm Gladwell’s latest work, “Talking To Strangers” was shown among the titles and remembered he also wrote the book, “Blink” that I wanted to read. But “Talking to Strangers” was NOT a book about becoming a better conversationalist. The first chapter disabused me of that belief. The book was more a study on how we misjudge, misread, and misinterpret strangers.

Gladwell used multiple anecdotes from transcripts and interviews to bring “truth-default theory” to life. He worked through this theory as a way to explain the position most people default to when talking with strangers. Truth-default theory originated with Timothy R. Levine, a distinguished professor and chair of communication studies at the University of Alabama Birmingham. Gladwell explained that when talking to others, we accept they’re telling the truth. We look at two scenarios, and we go with the more likely answer. Something has to push us over the threshold for us to not default to truth. “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society,” Gladwell said. “Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic; but…to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception – is worse” (342-343).

“Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know

Gladwell opened and closed the book with the case of Sandra Bland, pulled over for failing to use a signal on July 10, 2015 in Prairie View, Texas. That minor traffic violation led to a troubling exchange between her and state trooper Brian Encinia that led to her arrest. I didn’t remember this story so this was a fresh telling for me. He ended with the Bland case after a journey through other stories where he further developed “default-to-truth theory” and moved on to what I’ll call companions to default-to-truth for how we make sense of the stranger. He moved from a look at Cortez vs. Montezuma II to Fidel Castro & Cuban spies and the CIA, UK ambassadors and Adolf Hitler, finally turning his attention to stories from today’s headlines. He talked about the controversial cases of Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nassar, and Bernard Madoff, as well as Amanda Knox, and Brock Turner.

A chapter labeled “Sylvia Plath” caught my eye. She and Anne Sexton were included. I couldn’t wait to see why. I kept thinking, “I feel like singing the Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other.” Some of these stories were not like the others and didn’t appear to belong. They did connect eventually, and that’s what made the book a stimulating mental treat.

I thought Gladwell triumphed as a storyteller. I talked about this book often as I read, so riveted was I by these stories and the new insights I gained. I told people he’s like Paul Harvey in that he gave you “the rest of the story” once he developed his argument further. So many of his cases invited further study. He’s restored my faith in journalism. I could tell he thoroughly researched the cases presented and worked to give back an unbiased re-telling. He conducted interviews and used transcripts to bring life to the stories. (Yes, that meant I did see curse words.) Included were copious notes in the back. And he even gave an email address in the notes section for readers who notice an error they want to dispute.

I felt better informed about past and present cases, and I appreciated how Gladwell showed compassion and empathy for people the media had tried in the court of public opinion. Some takeaways that I wrote down:

  1. We are human and tend to default to truth in our encounters with strangers. Unless something pushes us over the threshold where we can’t explain away our doubts about strangers, we default to truth.
  2. If we didn’t default to truth, we would fall apart as a society. We wouldn’t trust anyone. No one would put their money in banks, send their kids to school, buy items online, etc.
  3. We need to stop “penalizing one another for defaulting to truth.” (342) When we hear about controversial news stories, we want to blame other people for not seeing the crime sooner. But that goes back to no. 1.
  4. We error in thinking human beings are transparent. TV and novels have lied to us about how transparent people are. A person’s demeanor or stance is not a reliable measure of their emotions or character (327) Cultures vary too in how they interpret the meaning behind facial expressions.
  5. Some people are mismatched. Liars look honest. Honest people look guilty. Just because someone is fidgety and restless, it doesn’t mean they are lying.
  6. Strangers’ behaviors are connected to place and context, to specific circumstances and conditions. “Don’t look at the stranger and jump to conclusions. Look at the stranger’s world” (296)
  7. A person can black out from drinking alcohol, board a plane, get a hotel room, shave their face, wake up days later and not remembering anything. Yikes! But it also explains how so many sexual assaults are happening on university campuses. Self-defense or training on respecting others will not help if you’re blacked out. Maybe people should drink less. How simple!
  8. High crime areas are not usually an ENTIRE city, Susan, but rather a few blocks. (I should find out which blocks are the hot spots in Dayton. It may put an end to my irrational fear of driving through downtown.)

When I finished this book I thought: “Give this guy a Pulitzer!” Such a departure from my usual nonfiction fare. I do like to take deep dives into subjects. I love the rush of the “A-ha moment.” I could easily see someone taking Gladwell’s ideas and applying them to literature to make sense of misunderstood characters, like Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” or Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.”

The more I read, the more I saw how often I have let social media and news media influence what I believe about some of the high-profile cases covered again in the book. And I think Gladwell accomplished his goal because I reflected often on each case presented. Not giving away the thrill of discovery, I will say they’re ones we should never forget. In an interview for “The New York Times” about “Talking To Strangers,” Gladwell said, “On every level, I feel like there is this weird disconnect between the way the world is presented to us in the media and the way it really is. The goal is simply to give people an opportunity to reflect on things they otherwise wouldn’t reflect on. What they do next is out of my control.”*

*“With ‘Talking to Strangers,’ Malcolm Gladwell goes dark” by Amy Chozick, The New York Times, Aug. 30, 2019

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