Malcolm Gladwell’s Take on Stranger Dynamics

Book review: Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell (Amazon / Book Depository)

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.

This was my first Malcolm Gladwell book. I couldn’t summon much interest in his topics, and the covers repel me (yes, I know we’re not supposed to judge them, but there is something intentionally signaled by cover art and his always scream that I’m going to be bored).

But I was intrigued by the stories featured in this one — including Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Sylvia Plath, Bernie Madoff:

In all of these cases, the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong. In Talking to Strangers, I want to understand those strategies—analyze them, critique them, figure out where they came from, find out how to fix them.

I can say I’m glad I finally read something of his, and I understand now why he’s such a popular author. This is easily palatable pop psych with fascinating trivia plus memorable examples of his points that readers will no doubt be able to find applications for in their own lives and mindsets. You’ll feel a bit smarter for having read it. But is he right about all of his assertions? I’m torn.

The gist of Talking to Strangers is that our miscommunications, misuse of transparency (meaning that we think we can understand something about people’s interiors by their behavior and self-presentation), and default to believing that people are telling the truth leads to a lot of dangerous, even deadly, mistakes in our interactions with strangers. He opens the book with Sandra Bland, a black woman pulled over by a white Texas police officer for failing to signal.

After a verbal altercation caught on dash cam (and a remarkably mild one at that, obvious if you’ve watched any episode of Cops or Live PD) led to her arrest, primarily because the cop was following a specific mode of policing that caused him to misinterpret circumstance and behavior of this out-of-state stranger, Bland committed suicide in jail three days later. Gladwell asserts that if the officer had known her, he might’ve pulled her over and said cheerfully, “Hey Sandy, be more careful next time,” (paraphrasing).

Sure. But it’s a big yet simplistic leap between that and how we talk to and understand strangers having such great impact. Still, learning about the flawed methodology the cop was applying was revealing and did explain some elements. Again, I’m torn. The evidence is there, but I’m not sure I trust the analytical interpretation.

This had the strange effect of being highly researched and yet feeling anecdotal. Perhaps that’s what made it seem overly simplistic. We already know much of it — that law enforcement misinterprets the behavior of people who are a bit weird or “off” (Amanda Knox), that people in general are bad at knowing when someone’s lying — and although his examples are mostly solid and stories well told, I didn’t get anything groundbreaking here.

Some are poorer examples: In a footnote, he cites a psychologist who argues that Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev‘s smirking in court when a photo of him flipping off the camera was shown wrongly influenced jurors, because Tsarnaev is from Chechnya, and different expressions of strength, masculinity, etc. apply instead of American ones of showing remorse. Except he is a naturalized American, and by all accounts was well integrated and acclimated in the US. So that argument could have some relevance, but is unhelpfully broad and lacks the evidential confirmation of cases like Bland’s and Knox’s.

So although enough of Gladwell’s conclusions make sense, and have been reached by plenty of experts before him, I found myself disagreeing with many. One story touched on throughout is of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain personally meeting with Hitler, securing the infamous promise for “peace in our time.” But after taking the Sudetenland, which they’d established as permitted, Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland. Chamberlain was flabbergasted, having trusted Hitler’s word.

Gladwell points out he was the only leader among what would become the Allies to have met Hitler in person; that’s why he bought his false promises. Chamberlain trusted Hitler from in-person misunderstandings; that tendency we have, he says, to default-believe people are telling the truth.

But he conveniently avoids any mention that Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler (technically with Ribbentrop, but with Hitler’s approval) mutually promising they wouldn’t invade each others’ lands or interfere in conflicts. Stalin refused to believe Hitler would break this pact until it was too late. But Stalin never met Hitler in person, so what’s his excuse? Gladwell builds a big argument on Chamberlain’s mistake revolving entirely around meeting Hitler, but just ignores a similar situation involving another leader who didn’t meet him but had the same outcome.

It’s one example of premises being flimsy. I was also especially uneasy with the chapter addressing Brock Turner’s rape case. Gladwell posits that alcohol makes us ineffective communicators (duh), blanks out memory thanks to hippocampus impairment and that’s why we can’t remember signals or signs that we would’ve more easily and accurately interpreted when sober. I refuse to believe that raping an unconscious person falls into any acceptable argument here. It was a weird, inappropriate example.

On the flip side, there are plenty of engrossing stories, and it’s written compellingly. I didn’t even notice that I’d spent an entire evening reading it until it was midnight – it’s one of those. The chapter addressing the suicides of Plath and Anne Sexton was interesting, and the best were the espionage chapters. These were the most insightful: former colleagues, even faced with evidence that their coworker was connected to suspicious circumstances, defaulted to believing what the double agents said. They acknowledged oddities or signs only in hindsight.

These moles — Aldrich Ames, Ana Montes — weren’t even particularly good or savvy spies. Ames didn’t hide the massive amounts of extra money in his bank account; Montes kept her codes in her purse, a shortwave radio in her closet, and a boyfriend specialized in Latin American intelligence who was clueless. That’s on us, Gladwell argues: “The issue with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them. It is that there is something wrong with us.”

But he makes the counterargument, with amusing examples from the Bernie Madoff case, that excessive vigilance isn’t the way to go either. So what to do? I can’t say I felt a strong game plan from any of this, besides be aware of your own biases and trust your instincts, but don’t trust them TOO hard?

Interesting ideas, compelling to read, but either overly obvious or start pulling on a few threads and it unravels. 3/5

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

by Malcolm Gladwell
published September 10, 2019 by Little, Brown

Amazon / Book Depository

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18 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell’s Take on Stranger Dynamics

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    1. That’s such a good word for it, it does feel like being manipulated! There was plenty of interesting material here but he makes it seem as if the way he’s explaining is definitive and in most of these cases there seemed potentially many other factors at play.

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  1. Aw, this is tough! I wanted to read this after listening to an interview with Malcom Gladwell, but it sounds like it won’t live up to expectations. I’ll probably tentatively leave it on my TBR, but won’t be rushing to pick it up.

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    1. It’s still worth your time. It’s an entertaining read and gives you a lot to think about, I just don’t feel as swayed by his arguments as he seems to think we should be, if that makes sense. I think I got more out of the little factoids and side stories than his main theses, honestly.

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  2. Found your review really interesting. I have not read any Gladwell but he keeps popping up in the media, making me feel I should read his books. Wonder whether this is the best of his books to start with? The subject does sound intriguing and I like that the book drew you in and hours flew by when you were reading it – that is what I look for in a book! Just before reading your review, I reserved Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Sounds like Gladwell should have left that case out of his book, too raw and awful to be used by him in this way.

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    1. It’s interesting you mention he keeps popping up in the media because I just finished a book by a scientist who made the point that part of why so much misinformation gets propagated by the media (like about fad diets and misreading medical study results) is that science and the analysis of experiments is just inherently difficult for laypeople to understand. So we only really grasp it when it’s simplified to a point of being inaccurate, basically. Gladwell isn’t such an extreme case of that, but it’s not unrelated, either. He’s so massively popular and I kind of wonder if it’s at least in part because he distills this stuff until it’s very easy readable and understandable if not necessarily completely accurate.

      It’s definitely worth the time to read it, and it was very fun reading, actually. I just felt myself disagreeing a lot, or at least thinking it’s not quite so straight a line between factors as he’s drawing. But it’s also good to read something you disagree with too, makes you think critically 🙂

      He’s not entirely insensitive about Chanel Miller and the Brock Turner case, but I tend to think there’s less nuance in that one than he seems to find there. Even though he mentions that the shitty behavior some people would normally be prone to just comes out easier with drinking, etc. It just didn’t need included here at all, in my opinion.

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  3. Oh man this sounds like a thorny reading experience. I was nodding my head along to so many of his examples that you pointed out but then something like Brock Turner – what the hell?! Also, I just read and enjoyed your review of the Amanda Knox biography that you linked to. I haven’t read that book but I have always felt SO drawn to her case, as a socially awkward girl who studied abroad in Italy and who can testify firsthand about how fucked up Italian bureaucracy is.

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    1. It was thorny indeed! Strangely, I don’t think he even intended it to be. He wasn’t insensitive about the Brock Turner thing, he even pointed out the changing messages in what Turner said upon his arrest and after he’d honed a message with his lawyers and what bullshit it all was, so he didn’t seem defensive of him or anything, but he just seemed to find a lot more nuance in the entire situation than I think is possible. A couple of these were weird examples but that one was weirdest.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review, you might like the book about the Amanda Knox case. It was really good and very detailed about their lives there, might be interesting for you! I find that case so fascinating too. And that’s the book Gladwell quotes from here, because that journalist interviewed Meredith Kercher’s friends who all talked shit about Knox and he pointed out that she really was just quirky and figuring herself out, thrown into this sudden brand new autonomy and freedom abroad and the police and prosecutor took nothing into consideration, it was just that she dared laugh, stretch, kiss her boyfriend, whatever.

      I can’t even imagine the fucked up Italian bureaucracy!! I’ve heard such ridiculous stories. Actually now that I think about it that must’ve been unnerving to have studied abroad there after this happened, since it was so obvious she hadn’t done anything yet this could happen.

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      1. It was SO bizarre studying abroad in Italy in that context, especially as she hadn’t even been officially acquitted at the time when I was there. I never had any question in my mind of her innocence so it was so strange reading your review and seeing that the European consensus wasn’t as favorable, especially because the reasons of her ‘guilt’ were so silly!

        My favorite ‘I hate this country’ moment in Italy: some buses have signs in the window that indicate that there’s a ticket dispenser on the bus, so you don’t need to buy a ticket beforehand. One time I got on one of these buses with the money in my hand, and a controllore (ticket… checker guy? what is this called in English?) blocked my way to the ticket dispenser and fined me for not having a ticket. I was like, are you fucking kidding me, you WATCHED ME STEP ONTO THIS BUS and then literally prevented me from using the machine! After a 5 minute shouting match he gave me a fine of 60 euros. Just… things like that are SO common, I was always like, I fully understand how Amanda Knox was able to be arrested over literally nothing.

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      2. I know, that was exactly it, the reasoning for her being guilty was just so silly!! How did anyone ever take it seriously? I don’t know why so many Europeans seem to think she is anyway though…it was long after her acquittal that people were still saying the eye thing. It must’ve been in their news stories or something, I don’t know where they all got it!

        That’s insane about the buses!! It sounds like that’s a purposeful tactic. That makes me cringe just thinking of the public shouting match too, ugh! WHY do they do this. And yeah, you can see where if you ended up having to defend yourself over it no one was going to side with you, you clueless foreigner trying to put one over on us! I hate that attitude. And it’s just completely corrupt. I think we tend to put a lot of the European countries above these kinds of things but it’s not just a given that there’s no corruption in certain bureaucratic processes. In Berlin the rumor was not to pay the controllers in cash if you were caught without a ticket because they’d take it and let you go and still send you the bill claiming it hadn’t been paid. In Germany!!!

        Also you really made me think about it and I have no idea what to call them in English! I guess controller is best. But I’ve never been on a subway in the US or UK that used that method so maybe we don’t even have a word for it? Only conductors on the Amtrak but they’re definitely not that…hmm.

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  4. I frequently see Gladwell’s books when I’m shelving at the library, and you’re right about those covers. They’re so bland and almost look like self-help books. And to be honest, when one person writes loads of self-help books, I wonder who the hell that person things he is that he’s got things all figured out. That being said, Gladwell is not a self-help author, so my brain needs to calm down….though can we agree that his books almost feel self-helpy?

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    1. Yes, that’s exactly it, the covers are so bland and definitely look self-helpy! I think I always sort of thought his books WERE at least partially self-help? And now that I think about it it’s probably because of the covers. And I agree, I also get suspicious of people writing too many self-help books. No one has it that together!

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  5. You always do such a good job articulating how you feel about these sort of not-awful, not-great books. I still read them but just don’t review many of these as I find it difficult to pinpoint the highs and lows. So far I haven’t read this one but have picked up a few Gladwell books. Outliers was the only one I reviewed though. The Tipping Point was exciting when it came out, but less so as critiques arrived and the flaws became more obvious. That one definitely read like a self-help book. What the Dog Saw was basically just a disjointed series of essays, I wouldn’t recommend it. I also read Blink but don’t recall anything about it, so clearly it wasn’t memorable for either good or bad.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying, you’re not really missing much. Outliers was my favorite of the bunch and I wasn’t that enthused about it. I think his books are appealing partly because they summarize/synthesize a lot of different stories and ideas. But for people who read nonfiction regularly, it’s better to read a book about each story that interests than to read a dozen short watered-down stories.

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    1. Thank you so much, I’m so flattered! It can be hard to pinpoint the good and the bad when it’s something so in-between like this so I’m really happy to hear that it’s making sense when you read it!

      Good to hear that about his other books. It sounds like your experience with him is really similar to mine with this one. There were interesting stories individually, but I just wasn’t totally on board with his analysis,
      and when it was one I was more interested in, his take on it feels very surfacey. There wasn’t all that much written about these stories here that you couldn’t get in more and better detail elsewhere. I think you’re right, it’s better to just read a book about those instead of his outlines and questionable take on various aspects of them, or how he kind of shoehorns them in to fit his points. Thanks for sharing your take on the other books, much appreciated!

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  6. I loved Gladwell’s books when I first read them about 8 years ago when I started blogging, but after reading a few and thinking about them more critically, I started to feel that everyone of his books was created by cherry-picking anecdotes that supported some theory he was pushing. For me, they all fit your description of this one as well-researched, but still anecdotal. Sure, he includes some scientific studies, but they typically support smaller points, not his overall theory, which itself is built on anecdotes. Because I started to feel that way though, I’ve not read one of his books in years, so I’d like to revisit them and see if I still feel unimpressed. It certainly seems like plenty of other people enjoy them.

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    1. That’s a good point – they’re fun to read but if you apply some critical thinking they start to come apart in many places, or at least this one did and it sounds like the others too, in your experience. Cherry-picking anecdotes is exactly what this one did! I kept thinking while reading the Chamberlain/Hitler one, which he repeatedly used a reference throughout the book to underscore his other points, that he was going to finally address the Stalin/Hitler issue and explain how that factored in to his theories. Nope! It casts doubt on his neatly told point so he totally ignores it. That bugged me. And it was the same as what you’re describing, he used scientific studies culled from various disciplines, and they did support a lot of the points, but on a smaller scale.

      It would be interesting to hear what you think of them now if you revisit any. I was curious because they’re really so popular, I felt like the last person who hadn’t read one. Even non-readery types seem to love them. I understand why now, because they are very readable and entertaining while still feeling like you’re learning something but I think his analysis is weak. These are fine just as ideas to consider and keep in mind but not to take too seriously.

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  7. I think you’re right not to trust Gladwell’s “analytical interpretation.” His analysis is always used to serve the point he wants to make. Information that doesn’t support his points is conveniently left out. You’re absolutely right — even “non-readery types” love him. I think this is because his smoothly persuasive style makes them feel like they’ve learned a lot from often-sweeping generalizations. I remember a few friends of mine being impressed by his “10,000-hour rule,” his arbitrary notion that the key to success in any field is to put 10,000 hours of practice into honing your skills in that field. Practice makes perfect. Banal. But he’s a good storyteller, and he sure knows how to sell books!

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    1. Yes, that’s exactly it, he just finds the examples that support his point and ignores the rest! That’s insulting to our intelligence. He does have that effect where you feel like you’ve learned a lot, but on reflecting actually all of these stories were told very surface-level and only focused on details that supported his theses. So it’s easier to enjoy it if you know nothing about the stories beyond what he gives you or if you don’t apply any critical thinking. And you’re so right, he just recycles common knowledge sometimes, like the 10,000 hours thing! That’s the modern rebranding of practice makes perfect, I suppose. I think he might grossly oversimplify in order to reach a wider audience, like newspapers do with medical and scientific studies, which is sad because it assumes we’re too dumb to appreciate anything more complicated. I guess that’s how you sell books…sigh…

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