Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know

By Malcom Gladwell

Little, Brown, and Company: (September 19, 2016)

400 pages; hardcover $30; e-read version $16; audio version $15

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a nutshell: In his latest book, writer Malcom Gladwell combines social science with his unique storytelling to explain why all of us are poor at assessing people we don’t know.

Who’s it for: General audiences

Author’s quote: “The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”

A core belief in our culture is that understanding a person involves observing them for a short time and then forming a solid read based on one’s own life experiences. Writer Malcom Gladwell has looked at recent and historic culture clashes and concludes that most of the time we don’t read people very well at all.

Gladwell’s unique combination of counter-intuitive social research and storytelling has made him popular enough that others who write in a similar vein are many times referred to as “Gladwellian.” His latest book “Talking to Strangers” hones in on how we make judgements of people that can be crucially wrong. This happens for a number of reasons. Some are cultural and others are nurtured biases that come to us in various ways. Gladwell uses an interesting array of examples to demonstrate his point, ranging from the TV show “Friends” to Great Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain misreading Adolph Hitler prior to World War II.

Gladwell explains that part of the problem with assessing people is our default to truth. When given the choice of believing someone is telling the truth or lying, our natural inclination is to look someone in the eye or read their face. If this assessment seems good, we tend to give that person the benefit of the doubt. Gladwell demonstrates the inaccuracy of this with a judge who was outperformed by a computer when trying to predict which criminals were more of a risk to hold on bond.

Gladwell also goes to the origin of intentional traffic stops, first used in select areas of Kansas City to fight violent crime. The original idea was to go beyond writing a ticket, with the police dragging the conversation out long enough to help decide if they should take the next step and search a car. This strategy in high-crime neighborhoods resulted in guns being taken off the street and a decrease in violent crime.

The problem with the Kansas City approach was when it was adopted incorrectly by other police departments. Over time these accelerated and elongated traffic stops became more creative with drivers being pulled over more and more for minor infractions in all neighborhoods regardless of the concentration of crime. Eventually the traffic stops were targeted significantly more to minority drivers by white police officers. Gladwell points out how this leads to people being mismatched with their assessment of one another. This is highlighted throughout the book with a detailed case of Sandra Bland, an African American woman pulled over by a local Texas policeman shortly after she moved there in 2005.

Gladwell recommends experiencing “Talking to Strangers” by listening to the audio version, which I did. Gladwell does a masterful job of narrating the text but he tries something different. For many of the book’s quotes and interviews, he uses actual audio recordings from the people involved. The future of publishing may likely use this technique going forward. Many will think of this listening experience much like an expanded podcast. Gladwell has a successful one of these, as well, called “Revisionist History.”

There are unnerving points in “Talking to Strangers” that will make one question the intent and motives of almost all of the people we encounter. At the same time, the reframing of assumptions discussed by Gladwell is valuable in our polarized world, hopefully making us stop, pause, and think when judging those we come across every day.

Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution based (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

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