Audiobook Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers
Malcolm Gladwell

Rating: 5 out of 5.

How do we make sense of people we don’t know? We might think we can read the strangers we meet, but sometimes we get it wrong. Using examples from history and the news, Malcolm Gladwell shows how and why we make these mistakes.

The book begins with the Sandra Bland case. In 2015, Bland, a young African American woman, was stopped by a police officer in Texas for a traffic violation. Based on his preliminary interaction, the officer feared an aggressive confrontation. The situation quickly got out of hand. Bland was arrested and jailed and three days later, she committed suicide in her jail cell.

Before World War II, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was sure he could accurately read Adolf Hitler, so he scheduled a series of face-to-face meetings. Afterwards, Chamberlain told the world that Hitler would not invade Europe, because Hitler had given his word and had even signed a paper saying so. Fidel Castro fooled the CIA and flipped many American agents during the 1980s, much to the shock of the United States. Bernie Madoff duped investors out of $64.8 billion in the largest Ponzi scheme in history. How could these things happen?

One of the reasons (not the Sandra Bland case, that’s more a case of a tragic misreading) is that human beings are wired to default to truth: most of us want to believe. We wouldn’t be able to function as a society if we thought everyone was lying. And most of the time, the strangers we meet do tell the truth. Psychologist Tim Levine, who has conducted comprehensive studies of human behavior, explains why. “What we get in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie is efficient communication and social coordination,” says Levine. In other words, “the cost of doing business.”

We’re also conditioned to believe facial expressions. Smiles mean happy, frowns mean mad, furtive eyes mean lying, etc. That doesn’t always work. And sometimes the undetected lies are at great cost. Gladwell looks at how former Penn State football coach and convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky fooled school administrators and the public. And why Larry Nassar, team physician of the USA Gymnastics women’s national team, abused girls and women for years before he was convicted.

But what about the Amanda Knox case? Knox, an exchange student in Italy, was convicted of murdering her roommate in 2007. She spent nearly four years in an Italian prison before courts overturned her conviction. Why was she convicted? Because, despite a complete lack of evidence, she didn’t behave the way we believed someone in her situation should have behaved. She wasn’t serious enough and so the courts, and the tabloids, thought she was lying.

On college campuses, young people also struggle to understand the strangers they meet at parties, particularly when alcohol mixes into their interactions. Gladwell looks at consent as it applies to the 2015 sexual assault case against Stanford University freshman Brock Turner.

And in a fascinating look at depression and suicide, Gladwell explains the theory of coupling, the idea that certain settings and circumstances, lead to situations, including suicide, that otherwise would not occur. How does this connect to the other examples? We may misread others because we don’t understand the coupling circumstances.

This book was fascinating. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gladwell, and supplemented with the print version. The audiobook was produced to resemble a podcast, using actual interviews from the cases cited. Gladwell does a great job explaining each case, the theories and tying up the examples. I’m sure I will read more books by Gladwell and highly recommend Talking to Strangers.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

32 thoughts on “Audiobook Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

    1. I didn’t realize until yesterday that he also wrote The Tipping Point. I read that years ago for my book club. I really enjoyed this audiobook. Thanks for the visit, Lynette!

    1. Hi Robbie – I highly recommend it. Gladwell is excellent at explaining things and making you think. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Friday to you, too! Just got off work about an hour and a half ago. Now dinner is finished and cleaned up so it’s time to relax!

    1. Hi Marian – I agree. I didn’t realize until later that he also wrote The Tipping Point – I read that years ago. I hope you like this one if you get a chance to read it. Happy Weekend!

  1. Yeah! Great summation, Barbara! The only other one of his I’ve finished is Blink–also excellent, but a couple people have told me David and Goliath is the best. That’s then next Gladwell on my list. So glad you enjoyed this one!

    1. Hi Betsy – my family is a little tired of hearing me talk about how great this book is – I’ll definitely read another by Gladwell. Thank you for reading and commenting – hope you’re out doing something fun!

  2. We’re wired to default to believing what we see … how wrong, duped we can be, and your examples show this so clearly Barbara, thank you. I’ve read a few of Malcolm Gladwell …

  3. I’ve loved Gladwell’s earlier books but found I couldn’t get enthralled by this one. The beginning with the story of Sandra Bland was fascinating and some of the early sections about double agents interesting but then it all began to feel repetitive so I gave up

    1. Hi BookerTalk – I didn’t realize until after I listened to this that he’d also written The Tipping Point, which I read a long time ago. I don’t remember liking that too much, but I also don’t remember why. I did enjoy the double agent stories because I didn’t know about that while they were happening. The Sandra Bland case really makes you think about the whole coupling concept. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it!

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