Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Knowby Published 10 Sep 2019
|Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know.pdf|
|Publisher||Little, Brown and Company|
The highly anticipated new book from Malcolm Gladwell, No.1 international bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw and David and Goliath
In July 2015, a young black woman named Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation in rural Texas. Minutes later she was arrested and jailed. Three days later, she committed suicide in her cell. What went wrong? Talking to Strangers is all about what happens when we encounter people we don't know, why it often goes awry, and what it says about us.
How do we make sense of the unfamiliar? Why are we so bad at judging someone, reading a face, or detecting a lie? Why do we so often fail to 'get' other people?
Through a series of puzzles, encounters and misunderstandings, from little-known stories to infamous legal cases, Gladwell takes us on a journey through the unexpected. You will read about the spy who spent years undetected at the highest levels of the Pentagon, the man who saw through the fraudster Bernie Madoff, the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath and the false conviction of Amanda Knox. You will discover that strangers are never simple.
No one shows us who we are like Malcolm Gladwell. Here he sets out to understand why we act the way we do, and how we all might know a little more about those we don't.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know Reviews
What I love about Gladwell's books is the thing that I think many people find frustrating: I don't agree with everything he says. But what brings me back is that he finds interesting threads and premises and manages to weave them together in such a way that it makes me think about my own beliefs a little different.
This book begins with the Sandra Bland case. Why did she die? Why did this situation even occur? It then goes into looking at a series of incidents of the CIA overlooking spies from Cuba who embedded themselves in US operations and how because, as humans, we default to truth, we are really bad at sniffing out those who are deceiving us. This is the case even for the most highly trained.
A few people, however, don't default this way. And this is precisely why Bernie Madoff played such a ponzi scheme -- one person who spoke up and out because things didn't feel right was made to feel as though he was overreacting. That no way could someone like Madoff, who looked too good to be involved in something like that, be a master criminal.
Gladwell then takes us to the Amanda Knox case and explores why it is she was believed to be a key suspect in the death of her roommate. The answer is that Knox's behavior doesn't align with how people think it ought to be in the midst of a crisis and grief. She's goofy by nature, and her actions after such a crime didn't fit with the model people have of how she should act. So, they read her behaviors as signs of guilt, rather than considering that, perhaps, she acted the way she always did.
The Brock Turner rape case is explored, too, and it's looked at not from the perspective of rape culture and toxic masculinity -- the narrative we all know and agree with because those aren't incorrect -- but rather, it's looked at from the point of alcohol and how it inhibits cognitive function. This was the case both for the victim and for Turner, making it impossible for a truthful account of what happened that night. There's no rape apologizing here; instead, it's a look at the context of the case that makes piecing it together challenging. This is coupling: alcohol was linked here.
So what of the Bland case then?
Gladwell talks about research done in academia about crime and how context matters there. "Dangerous" places often aren't. The problem is almost always isolated to a tiny portion of a place, like a few blocks in a city. This understanding led to Kansas City trying out a new method of policing, being highly concentrated in the worst areas in order to decrease crime.
Why? People were willing to give up some of their privacy for the safe of their safety. They live in an area with high crime and significant drug use and gun violence, a visit from the police didn't bother them knowing that it had a direct effect on their environment.
The problem was when that tactic was used outside the context. This was what Gladwell links together for the Sandra Bland story. A police officer, trained in the Kansas City method, removed the context from the situation. He also leaned heavily into not defaulting to truth. Bland? Her behavior didn't conform to the ideas of how someone "should" behave in the situation. The same pieces of the puzzle -- the coupling, the lack of context -- allows the Kansas City policing method to default to fault, as opposed to truth, too easily. See what happens in Ferguson (and not just the Michael Brown case, but in additional cases of unnecessary policing of a community).
It's a really interesting premise and one that makes a good bit of sense. What Gladwell doesn't do, though, is address sexism here. He does touch on race -- especially about how black communities are already over policed -- but gender doesn't come into it quite enough. I wish we'd seen that layer here, especially as it tied into the Knox case AND how to relates back to the Bland case.
Overall, it's one that will make me think a lot more about interactions with strangers, both those I have and those I don't. It's fascinating to think about how this might, too, connect with social media and how we do/don't connect with other people who are strangers to us. Rather than default to truth, it seems that in places like Twitter, we've come too quick to ignore the context, ignore the coupling effect, and we quickly default to anywhere but the truth. Something to really chew on, and surprisingly connected to the powerful first essay about Twitter in Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion.
This was my first Malcolm Gladwell, and now I have to go read everything else! In Talking to Strangers, Gladwell investigates what goes wrong when we interact with people we don’t know, using dramatic scenarios ripped from the headlines, history, psychology, and criminology. Gladwell begins and ends with the tragic death of Sandra Bland, and it’s impossible to ignore how urgently we need better strategies of understanding strangers.
Malcolm Gladwell’s latest foray into human folly is its seemingly innate trust in strangers. We assume strangers are transparent, and can take what they do and say at face value. Sometimes we are wrong, but assuming everyone is evil is far worse. Talking To Strangers focuses (mostly) on a number of very high profile criminal cases we are all likely to be familiar with. They include the Amanda Knox case, the Jerry Sandusky case, the Brock Turner case, the Sandra Bland case, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and the Bernie Madoff case.
Gladwell looks at them differently. He looks at them not from simple guilt or innocence, but from the misread signals that have surrounded them. The result can be a ruined life, prison or even death, unearned. On the other side (the investigator side), they can result in self-delusion, missed opportunities and complete wastes of time achieving nothing. It’s an imperfection he exploits repeatedly throughout the book.
It all hinges on the notion of transparency, what people assume about strangers just by looking at them. Judges make decision about bail, college students make decisions about having sex, investigators make assumptions about guilt – all just by looking and talking to strangers. Gladwell shows we do pretty poorly, especially compared to machines given raw data. Systems have a far better record of assigning or withholding bail, for example. Judges, even after decades of experience, fool themselves daily.
There is a side trip into coupling, where people fixate on something. In his chapter on the suicide of Sylvia Plath, he examines the role of town gas, saturated with carbon monoxide, which was the favorite method of suicide until it was phased out in favor of natural gas. As it disappeared, the suicide rate plunged. If people didn’t have their town gas, they didn’t kill themselves. They did not, as expected, look for alternatives. It was town gas, or nothing. Similarly, the Golden Gate Bridge is a favorite suicide tool, even though faster and easier methods are readily available.
Gladwell discovers that different cultures appreciate facial expressions differently. There are no real universals. He finds that people default to trusting others unless they know them already. Otherwise we would all be like television Vikings, constantly killing each other for lack of trust.
Talking To Strangers feels incomplete and unsatisfying. It’s no news to anyone that first impressions might not prove correct. It’s why it takes five to ten years for a marriage to break up, or months for a teenage relationship. How people we thought we knew could turn out to be evil on some level. We feel betrayed (but we betrayed ourselves). Suspension of disbelief (a term Gladwell does use at any point in the book) means we ignore the defects and faults we are presented with, and assume the best for this stranger. Later, those same faults become intolerable. But we know this.
Oddly, he does not examine American gun culture as substitute for this normal transparency and trust.
He discovers that alcohol doesn’t reveal, it transforms. There are good drunks and bad drunks, good trips and bad trips. The real you is not revealed by alcohol; you become a stranger to yourself. We drink so much more per session today that blackouts have become common and even measurable and predictable. Drink too much and your brain shuts down so you remember nothing. You leave yourself in the hands of a complete stranger – yourself. This is also not news.
Still and as usual, Gladwell is easy to read. He packs his pages with these fascinating sidelights, and confirms much of what we have always suspected. Too trusting is being gullible. Non-trusting means a monster.
The most clear and chilling example he gives was the Ana Montes case, in which a Cuban intelligence mole worked her way up through the US security establishment with such great accomplishments and accolades that no one suspected her, despite the gigantic clues and traceable events. Leaks followed her everywhere. It was a case of suspension of disbelief as clear and dramatic as a teenager watching a terrible sci-fi flick. The CIA counterintelligence officer in charge, who finally outed her and stopped the hemorrhaging, kicks himself for not putting 2+2 together years earlier.
The best quote comes in the Khalid Sheik Mohammed case. Years of torture, both physical and psychological led Mohammed to finally confess. He confessed to pretty much everything in the world. The investigators began to think he was puffing himself up for posterity, knowing under no circumstances would he ever be set free. It made them (as so many have before them) rethink torture: “Trying to get information out of someone you are sleep-depriving is sort of like trying to get a better signal out of a radio that you are smashing with a sledgehammer.…It makes no sense to me at all.” But we carry on, regardless.
Gladwell has great command of his thoughts. He handles his subject with comfort and ease. He will take you down strange paths and bring you back when he’s ready. And not before. So while it might be incomplete, it is engaging and entertaining.
In the end, Gladwell has so immersed himself in the Sandra Bland case and the psychology and tactics at every level, that he can explain it way beyond simply a cop gone bad. He says according to the known science he has explained, the police should not have been making stops on that stretch of road, and not in broad daylight. That the directions of management to make as many stops as possible was wrong, as was the police manual on obtaining and maintaining control over suspects. Mostly, from the context of this book, the officer took all the clues he found – an out of state license, an aggravated driver, fast food wrappers on the floor, no other keys on the keychain, failure to put out a cigarette on command – as nefarious instead of ordinary. He was trained to do the opposite of what we all do innately: assume truth and transparency in a stranger. That drivers should not be suspects; they are simply strangers. While that might let the occasional bad guy get away, the pain for treating everybody as a suspect is the kind of thing that can stop human society in its tracks. Our fundamental baseline must lean toward assuming transparency and trust. It is a necessary illusion.
9/2/2019--I'm knocking this down to two stars. Gladwell's really bad takes on things like race and sexual assault just don't deserve an okay rating.
Wow, does this book ever suffer from a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease!
I almost didn’t make it past the introduction. In my pre-publication copy, Gladwell writes, “The Sandra Bland case came in the middle of a strange interlude in American public life” and then goes on to discuss a series of cases of police violence against black people that happened around 2014.
“Strange interlude.” Really?
That phrasing suggests that this treatment was some sort of aberration in American history and that the violence only happened during the few years he references. Did Gladwell really mean to ignore America’s long history of this problem?
I don’t think so? I think he may have meant that the attention paid to police violence was unusual, but dude, choose your words much more carefully.
Later on, there are some good points made about how and why we tend to misunderstand each other.
But, again, I almost put the book down, this time while reading the chapter on the Brock Turner sexual assault case. Without going into detail, that chapter could only have been written by someone who's buried his head in the sand over the past five years or so.
It’s tough to ignore the problematic elements of Talking to Strangers. I could absolutely see the discussion of the causes of sexual assault offending some readers to the point that they abandon the book altogether. I’ve definitely enjoyed other books by the author a lot more than this one. Three stars, but that’s being generous.
Thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for giving me a DRC of this book, which will be available for purchase on September 10th.
Thanks so much for choosing me as winner in the giveaway !
I loved this book !! I always thought about the disparity of meeting someone who seemed 'so nice' and someone you wanted to develop a friendship or relationship with, only to have an opposite view shortly after. Did I misjudge ? Am I too picky, critical and judgmental ? Are they really a sociopath ?
This book explains a lot of that thru mismatching, which is basically how someone appears at a given time as opposed to who they really are. Another theory in misjudging strangers is the fact that some people appear to be 'not nice', 'guilty' or some other trait which many would deem as a red flag that proves false. Not everybody who is sad cries, not everyone who big hearted is a smiley face.
High recommended reading !