Written By: Malcolm Gladwell
Narrated By: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Penguin Books LTD
Date: September 2019
Duration: 8 hours 43 minutes
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know is a nonfiction book written by Malcolm Gladwell and published by Little, Brown and Company (hardcover version) on September 10, 2019. The audiobook version of the book follows Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast-style structure, using Gladwell’s narration, interviews, sound bites, and the theme song “Hell You Talmbout”.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know Audio books Summary
A Best Book of the Year: The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Chicago Tribune, and Detroit Free Pres
Malcolm Gladwell, host of the podcast Revisionist History and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Outliers, offers a powerful examination of our interactions with strangers — and why they often go wrong.
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?
While tackling these questions, Malcolm Gladwell was not solely writing a book for the page. He was also producing for the ear. In the audiobook version of Talking to Strangers, you’ll hear the voices of people he interviewed–scientists, criminologists, military psychologists. Court transcripts are brought to life with re-enactments. You actually hear the contentious arrest of Sandra Bland by the side of the road in Texas. As Gladwell revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies. There’s even a theme song – Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout.’
Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.
Talking to Strangers Audiobook Reviews
Loved the way Mr. Gladwell brought relevant facts and stories pertaining to the Sandra Bland tragedy. He builds and pulls from Friends, Amanda Knox, and other bits to remind us of the danger of societal stereotypes and acceptance of simple explanations without digging deeper to understand people not like us. This is my favorite of all his books I have read to date.
As I sat at the airport, head deep in a book, I suddenly heard, “Hi!” What? To my left stood a handsome man. “I just thought I should say hi since I see you’re reading Talking to Strangers.”
I too thought Malcolm Gladwell’s new book was going to teach me how to literally talk with people I don’t know, but as always he turns all my assumptions on their head with this book. If that’s what the book was about, that stranger and I might be on a date by now.
If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy… We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues.
At the 2019 book conference BookExpo America, Malcolm pointed out that the problems exemplified by the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman arrested by a white policeman, are everywhere, not just in the darkest areas of America. It lies not only with these individuals but within each of us.
In his book, he takes huge scandals (and who doesn’t love to read about a scandal?), reaches deep inside like you would your skinniest jeans and then pulls them inside out. Except that when he does this, you suddenly realize your jeans had actually been inside out before. It is mind bending, which means that you have to follow along to at least page 54 before you start to understand where Malcolm is going. You will either find this too convoluted to keep going at some point or you will read it all in one sitting, as I did flying from NY to CA. My one frustration with this book is that at the very end Malcolm spends only 2 pages (2!) saying what we should do about all he just taught us. After speeding through the book, that feels like an abrupt stop. On the other hand, I can’t stop thinking about what he reveals along the way. I can’t unsee what he has shown me and now my framework of looking at the world is different. And isn’t that the mission of any good book?
SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who don’t keep reading the book, here are my key insights. But to really understand what Malcolm argues happened in cases like Fidel Castro’s fooling of the CIA, the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal, and the death of Sandra Bland you need to read the whole book.
- THE DEFAULT TO TRUTH PROBLEM We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowing gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. 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.
For a very few, there is no high threshold before doubts turn into disbelief – dishonesty and stupidity is everywhere. In Russian folklore, this archetype is called yurodivy, the “Holy Fool.” We should be strategically inserting these people where our society has a blind eye, to be whistle blowers, however we don’t want these to blanket their judgement on everyone. While we think we want our guardians to be alert to every suspicion, that is actually key to where the police officer so tragically failed Sandra Bland. It wasn’t that he didn’t do what he was trained to do, but that he did exactly what he was trained to do. He was taught to blanket perfectly innocent people with suspicion in case of the rare instance of a criminal. This kind of thinking leads to the distrust we see between police and the community today. To assume the best of another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature is violated are tragic. But the alternative – to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception – is worse.
- THE TRANSPARENCY PROBLEM Transparency is a myth.
How people are feeling inside often does NOT perfectly match how they appear on the outside, which means we are misjudging other’s intentions. This doesn’t matter as much with close friends where you understand what their idiosyncratic expressions mean (I had a friend who would often abruptly get up and leave. Other people would think she was very angry at something someone had said, but I saw nothing wrong because I could tell she wasn’t angry at all.) When we are confronted with a stranger, we have to substitute an idea – a stereotype – for direct experience. And that stereotype is wrong all too often. However while this strategy for dealing with strangers is deeply flawed, it is also socially necessary. 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… we’re not always honest with each other about just how terrible at it we are.”
- THE MISMATCH PROBLEM We are bad lie-detectors in those situations when the person we’re judging is mismatched.
A mismatch is where someone’s level of truthfulness does NOT correspond with the way they look. I think someone is honest based on how they look and act but in actuality they are lying and I can’t tell the difference.
Malcolm dissects the case of Brock Turner, where because these two strangers were blind drunk, myopia removed the highest order constraint on their behavior. Myopia makes it hard to consider the long-term consequences, so a sexually aggressive teenager’s impulses are no longer kept in check by an understanding of how inappropriate those behaviors are and the long term risks of those behaviors. Combine that with mismatching and transparency problems and it’s a disaster. If you want people to be themselves in a social encounter with a stranger – to represent their own desires honestly and clearly – then they can’t be blind drunk.
- THE COUPLING PHENOMENON The first set of mistakes we make with strangers… have to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual. But there’s a second category of error that has to do with our inability to appreciate the context in which the stranger operates… Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.
For instance, both crime and suicides are coupled – tied to very specific places and contexts. Outside of those places and contexts, the rate of both go down drastically. That means when you confront the stranger, you have to ask yourself where and when you’re confronting the stranger – because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.
SO WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
We could start by no longer penalizing each other for defaulting to truth… We should also accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers… But far more important than a little grace and humility over what we cannot do, we should be clear about what we can [do]… There are clues to making sense of the stranger. But attending to them requires humility and thoughtfulness and a willingness to look beyond the stranger, and take time and place and context into account.
Malcolm Gladwell was motivated by a need to understand the truth of what happened with Sandra Bland and other recent scandals. His conclusion is that the “truth” … is not some hard and shiny object that can be extracted if only we dig deep enough and look hard enough. The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile (just by stressing someone out you can affect their memory of what happened) … We need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.
Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.
Listen To Talking to Strangers Audiobook
Reviews by Carol Tavris in The Wall Street Journal and Anthony Gottlieb in The New York Times say that “the book is not really about strangers” and the “title doesn’t describe the book”. Gottlieb notes how Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Ana Montes and others deceived not only strangers, but also those familiar and close to them. Tavris notes how the stories in the book are related to people we talk “about” rather than those we talk “to” in our daily lives. Tavris asserts that the strangers in the book, like Hitler and Bernie Madoff, are not strangers at all, but people who may have been in the news, or someone we knew or admired, before learning more about them changed our entire perception. Andrew Ferguson writes in The Atlantic that Gladwell doesn’t define the word “stranger” in the book, and the definition varies according to the story being told.
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