Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

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

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Published: April 30th 2020, Penguin UK

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

“We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.”

In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of five NewYork Times Bestseller non-fiction titles, explores the factors at play when we make judgements about who people are, and why our interactions with strangers so often leads to misunderstanding and conflict.

“We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.“

By default most humans afford each other some level of trust, we must in order to operate within society, the advantage to human beings, in assuming that strangers are truthful, results in efficient communication and social coordination, argues psychologist Tim Levine. He calls this the Truth-Default Theory and in Talking to Strangers, Gladwell examines how this instinctive behaviour shapes our interactions with others, why it matters, and what happens when we get it wrong.

“Transparency is the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor—the way they represent themselves on the outside—provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”

Most of us believe we know when someone is telling the truth, or being deceptive – that we can tell by a person’s behaviour, demeanour, or even their attractiveness. Statistically however our ability to determine someone’s truthfulness seems to be quite poor, particularly when there is a mismatch between behaviour and intent. Gladwell discusses how this applies by looking at relevant high profile cases involving people such as Bernie Madoff, and Amanda Knox.

“Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.”

Gladwell also introduces the idea that context has a greater influence on our interactions with strangers than often considered. I found this information interesting but I think he overlooked the obvious, and more relatable, aspects of this argument.

In fact there were several issues I thought would be relevant to the discussion in Talking To Strangers that Gladwell barely mentioned, if at all, particularly in terms of how interactions are influenced by conditions such as narcissism and anti-social disorders (which matter when you are talking about politicians), and the difference between how men and women judge strangers. In fact the perspective of this book feels overwhelmingly masculine even though the subject of the book was inspired by the death of a woman, Sandra Bland.

“But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error. That is the paradox of talking to strangers. We need to talk to them. But we’re terrible at it…”

I wasn’t entirely convinced in regards to some of Gladwell’s analysis, but I found the narrative to be accessible and the subject thought-provoking. I know I will likely be more conscious of my thought process the next time I talk with a stranger.


Available from Penguin UK

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Deb Nance at Readerbuzz
    Apr 26, 2020 @ 21:38:20

    I’ve enjoyed his books in the past, but I’m sorry this one isn’t quite as well written.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Trin Carl
    Apr 26, 2020 @ 22:01:02

    Ha ha, you’re reading a book with the title word strangers and I’m reading ‘Stranger Inside’ tell me your book is just as wonderful!!!!Trust seems like a them e in both as my book deals with trusting a stranger who stole the m.c’s house. wow!



  3. the bookworm
    Apr 26, 2020 @ 22:26:09

    This one sounds thought-provoking. It’s too bad he didn’t go more in depth about some of the other topics you mention.

    Liked by 2 people


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  5. harvee
    Apr 27, 2020 @ 13:46:44

    I found it worth while reading. It was a little scary too, the idea that we can never really know what the stranger is really thinking, lol.

    Liked by 1 person


  6. Lauren Becker
    Apr 27, 2020 @ 22:50:28

    Thanks for sharing. I have this one to hopefully read soon – I’m definitely curious. I appreciate your sharing what did and did not work for you. 🙂


    Liked by 1 person


  7. ThoughtsBecomeWords
    Apr 28, 2020 @ 11:25:38

    I enjoyed your review, but the book not so much. It covered a lot of ground already known, and some of his ideas were experimental at best, but it may enhance people’s awareness.

    Liked by 1 person


  8. BookerTalk
    May 15, 2020 @ 19:16:53

    I’ve loved his work in the past but couldn’t get enthused by this one. The Sandra Bland episode was deeply shocking (I’d not heard of that case before) and there were a few interesting cases about spies who covered their tracks for years. But I was really missing the big idea in his analysis. Beyond saying that we can’t trust our judgements, what was he really saying?

    Liked by 1 person


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