• Dan Connors

Can you trust strangers? How and when?


Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Malcolm Gladwell 2019

Four of five stars ****


Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best and most popular storytellers and writers out there today. His books have topped best-seller lists and Talking to Strangers has been no exception. Gladwell's strength is his ability to tell compelling stories and make us look further into their meaning in a larger cultural sense.

This book is an interesting dive into the world of deception and confusion, when messages get garbled between people who don't know each other and foolish people trust those who they have no business trusting. Gladwell goes deep into stories we've all heard of before- Sandra Bland's traffic stop that resulted in her suicide, Jerry Sandusky's horrible pedophile scandal, the Amanda Knox case, Brock Turner's fraternity rape, and the origins of the odious preventative police patrols that targeted black drivers.


The first part of the book focuses on what Gladwell calls "default to truth", a tendency to assume that people are honest and to overlook evidence that points otherwise. People want to live in a world where they can trust others, so they lean heavily on the side of trusting bad people. Gladwell tells the stories of how Neville Chamberlain trusted Adolph Hitler because he wanted to, how tons of investors trusted Bernie Madoff because he was a master salesman, and how a high level Cuban spy made fools out of the entire US intelligence establishment for years. He states that we need to look for triggers that might snap us into reality and be more wary of powerful deceivers.


The second section is a potpourri of stories that challenge our perceptions of people. What we see on the outside is rarely an indication of what is going on inside of people. Some are master manipulators, and others look guilty even when they do nothing wrong. Judges deciding who will no break bail do a worse job when looking at defendants in person and making superficial judgements. Computers can use statistics to cut through the deceptive criminals with sob stories. He describes the Amanda Knox case in which a young woman was accused of murder because she acted in a way that made people think she was guilty, when it turned out she wasn't. Judging others is much harder than it looks, and people are often too quick with their own personal opinions and prejudices before looking deeper into the evidence.


For me, the last three chapters were the strongest, each dealing with issues that we struggle with today. One chapter looks at the problem of suicide and linkage, and how certain methods are easier and more available and cause more suicides. He tells the story of how a certain type of cooking gas with carbon monoxide was introduced, suicides skyrocketed with that method, and when the gas was changed they went down. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was a popular place for suicides up until 2018 when a barrier was finally put in place. Handgun suicides are more common in countries with high concentrations of handguns. Gladwell argues that suicidal people don't commit suicide unless the proper methods are available. It is a rash and desperate decision, and when things aren't right suicidal people instead go and get help or wait until the feelings subside.


The chapter on the Kansas City experiment in police patrols was most enlightening. Police departments, trying to lower crime rates, discovered that while they can't enter a house without a search warrant, they in most cases can enter a car and search a driver if they see "probable" cause. This huge loophole was used against people of color to use minor traffic infractions to stop anyone looking suspicious, all in a "fishing" expedition looking for drugs, guns, or real crimes. While this experiment was only meant for small, high-crime areas, it has spread since 1991 all over the country and caused a multitude of consequences- distrust of police in minority communities, unwarranted arrests, and racial animosity. Some 20 million stops like this occur every year and police departments are struggling to figure out how to improve their image while keeping neighborhoods safe.


The final chapter is an in-depth look at the case of Sandra Bland, a single black woman who was pulled over in Texas for changing lanes without signaling. The officer in charge totally misreads Bland's emotions and starts looking for reasons not to trust her. After a lengthy process Bland is arrested and put in jail. No one bothered to look to Bland's emotional state, which was very low, and she hanged herself in her jail cell. Gladwell uses this sad tale to bookend his stories, and points out the many places that the officer got wrong. He uses this one example to show how misjudging a stranger can have lasting consequences.


I will admit that while these stories are all fascinating, and Gladwell is a great storyteller, I'm not sure what he was trying to say with this book other than be more careful in judging strangers. I will say that the audiobook version was excellent in that it used recordings of the actual characters referenced in the book,. rather than Gladwell reading their words. In that way the audio version comes out more like a podcast than anything. I would recommend listening over reading, but either way there is much food for thought in this book. I also would recommend You're Not Listening, by Kate Murphy, that does a better job in detailing why we don't understand each other most of the time.

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