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

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  10,687 ratings  ·  1,411 reviews
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.

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Hardcover, 388 pages
Published September 10th 2019 by Little, Brown and Company
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Emily May
Sep 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, 2019
I was trying to work through my thoughts on this book when Goodreads did an interview with Malcolm Gladwell and this one thing he said just made everything clear for me:
“I've never been a writer who's looked to persuade his readers; I'm more interested in capturing their interest and curiosity.”

Because, truthfully, I don't know that Gladwell did fully convince me of his way of thinking with this book. I don't know that I actually agree that he can draw a link between the police officer “misunderstanding” San/>
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
Sep 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: sociology, canadian
Never Trust a Blood Relative

Talking to Strangers is an elaboration of a simple (trivial?) idea: It’s very difficult to tell when people are lying. According to Timothy Levine, the academic psychologist on whom Gladwell relies for his basic argument, the presumption that people tell the truth is almost universal, a few Holy Fools (and, I suppose, Judge Judy) excepted. Levine calls this his Truth Default Theory. Gladwell applies it entertainingly, if rather repetitively, to cases of duplicity ranging from double a/>Talking
Gretchen Rubin
I always feel lucky when I get to read a book before its official publication date. A fascinating, accessible examination of the miscommunications that can arise when we talk to strangers. We're going to interview Malcolm Gladwell for the Happier podcast, can't wait for that.
Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: netgalley
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.

UPDATE 9/23/19
I have now changed this to one star. The more I read about this and other pseudo psych crap he no no. The enjoyment of some parts of the book does not outweigh the total garbage of parts of it. Two examples are linked below, with a particularly shocking tidbit from one:

UPDATE 9/23/19
I have now changed this to one star. The more I read about this and other pseudo psych crap he no no. The enjoyment of some parts of the book does not outweigh the total garbage of parts of it. Two examples are linked below, with a particularly shocking tidbit from one:

The most important part of the first link:
Gladwell: You know I have that chapter on Jerry Sandusky in my book, and it’s all about how I feel the leadership of Penn State was totally, outrageously attacked over this. I think they’re blameless.

Simmons: Yeah.

Gladwell: But with Joe Paterno... Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong. He hears the allegation and immediately tells his superiors, and the critique of Joe Paterno was essentially, “Why was a 75-year-old football coach not behaving towards a suspected pedophile with the savvy and insight of a psychiatrist?”

Simmons: Right.

Gladwell: He’s a football coach! He doesn’t even know what the word—there was this hilarious—[regretful sigh] hilarious—there was this moment in, I think one of the trial transcripts, where someone was asked, “Did you use, when you went to”—the quarterback who goes to Paterno, McQueary, the former quarterback, goes to Paterno to tell him this allegation—“Did you use the word sodomy?” And he’s like, “No I didn’t use the word sodomy.” And then there’s this sort of thing, I think, where they’re wondering whether Paterno actually knew what the word sodomy was [laughing].

Simmons: Right.

Gladwell: He doesn’t! He’s been thinking football 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 60 years. He is not going to be alert to the darkness inside the heart of one of his former coaches. You can’t ask him to do that. That’s why you have mental health professionals or fit, trained psychologists in the world to handle those kind of problems. We do this thing sometimes when a crisis happens, when we suddenly expect our leaders to be skilled at absolutely every job under the sun. They’re not.

NO, I JUST EXPECT LEADERS TO HAVE A FEW BRAIN CELLS THEY CAN POOL TOGETHER TO UNDERSTAND APPROPRIATE RELATIONSHIPS!! WWWWTTTF! Also as a teacher (and there are many other professions that wear many hats--doctors, nurses, social workers, business owners, entrepreneurs, literally almost any job) I am ABSOLUTELY expected to perform more than one specific role. I manage data, help with emotions, involve the community, report suspected abuse and so on. As do many other underpaid and undervalued professions. So it's DISGUSTING and insulting to literally everyone to imply we can allow and expect rich football coaches to be all, "aw shucks, I was only thinking about my next game."


The positive is, Gladwell always keeps me interested. He somehow finds the most interesting anecdotes and stories. Even the ones you have heard before---he has a way of making them seem like there is always more than meets the eye and that they are more interesting. I was never bored listening to this because even if you don't like one section, he's almost on to something else.

But then..

His thing is to take stories that on the surface are completely unrelated and tries to jam them together to fit his central thesis. In this book, the main thesis is the idea that we can't appropriately understand/analyze strangers because we try to get them to fit in a box. That doesn't work because we don't understand everything about that person and their context/background. For example, If a person is mean, he acts like __________. If a person is a crook, he will act__________. Them acting opposite of what we assume they should act like causes us to misjudge them and get the wrong idea. Well, surely this is not a new idea...?

To me, many of the examples he use either don't fit this, have many other factors involved, or at times he even contradicts his own theories.

Let's start with Sandra Bland. His favored incident in the book. His argument here is that she didn't fit the idea of "law abiding citizen" the cop had in his head when he pulled her over and it caused him to be afraid and assume she was a criminal. She was "shifty", "irritable," and generally not happy to be pulled over. Well, who is? I've had some tickets in my day and I have only once been what would be called a bit snappy to a cop, but even when polite, I generally always feel on edge. I've even cried before when I was struggling with money and afraid of getting a ticket. I don't want a ticket, and if I'm getting one, I want the situation to be over ASAP. Don't we all?

So compare me to Sandra, who as a black woman has a whole extra level of fear of the situation, as well as the fact that she has had many more traffic stops than I over generally minor stuff. These cost her a lot of money and are very stressful. Even if the officer didn't know she got stopped often in the past, anyone who has been watching the news LIKE EVER knows African-Americans may at times act more nervous or aggregated than white drivers because of cases like Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, etc etc. And if ANYONE knows this, it damn well would and should be a cop! How are we to believe he had no clue about the racial subtext of pulling over African-American drivers?

Beyond the facts of race, cops should know about de-escalation which if you hear the tape, he did not do this at all. He didn't even attempt it. Let's recall she is pulled over for not signaling which Gladwell fully admits the cop caused by tailing her. Which adds to her irritation. He gets petty with her over lighting a cigarette and screams at her to step out of the car over it. So this pseudo-psych theory that "she isn't acting as he would expect and it made him 'terrified' of her," is just.....BS. I don't discount cops have a hard job and it's harder than we can ever know to stay calm and read strangers. But....but....this was literally all on the cop. If me, being an average citizen knows about deescalation and how race plays a role in traffic stops, no way he did not. Was she a little rude? Maybe, but public service employees (cops, teachers, nurses, etc) have to be able to deal with people who are a little rude. You don't scream at them to get out of the car or say you are going to light them up or say 'good' when they tell you they have epilepsy and they are worried for their health now. I also don't think he was terrified of her and if he was and that's all it took, he's either racist, has power issues, or just an awful cop. Or all of the above? No psych about it. She should never have walked away with felony charges.

To be fair, he is not at happy with how the cop acted that day, but I am more bothered by his over-analysis of the cop. Like this psychology explains his bad behavior.

Then comes Jerry Sandusky. REALLY?? Is this the hill you wanna die on, Malcolm? That Sandusky was "unfairly treated?" Is it possible he is innocent? I guess. Save video tape of someone committing a crime and dozens of witnesses, it's possible ANY convicted criminal could be innocent. I tried really hard to keep an open mind but it's never even clear WHY he believes this so strongly. He says "it's nothing like the Larry Nassar case," which it is often compared to. Why does a crime have to be very similar to another crime of it's type to be true? He says they had more victims. Those victims also never waver in their stories and told many people over the years. First of all, those were girls and these are all boys. One would imagine they may behave differently in the situation. Second of all, and hear me out---is it possible these victims of assault didn't act the way Gladwell felt victims of assault "should act?" Which is his whole theory (we have set ideas of how people should act in certain situations) and yet he comes out on the other side implying Sandusky may be innocent?! Then also, what exactly is the naked showering with slapping sounds if not sex? Just horseplay?? More BS, and if it was .... what adult man would not know horseplay of that manner with a child is destined to be construed as something else?? He never even comes down or attempts to explain why a grown man would engage in naked horseplay with a child.

Then of course, Brock Turner. Yes, college kids should probably drink less alcohol. Wow. Revolutionary. The fact he has to say outright it's not victim blaming reveals he knows what shaky ground he is on.

Just, ugh. He tries sooooo hard and has so many holes and flaws in his arguments. I wish he would just tell the stories and stop trying to be intellectual about it.
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-psychology
I'm glad that those nice people at Goodreads chose me randomly to receive an old-school paper copy of this book, free of charge. It will be a novel feeling to actually have read a controversial book before it hits the shelves and generates the predictably shallow hot takes in the few moments before the world's attention moves onto something else.

Perhaps I'm engaging in a display of unwarranted optimism to think that a mere book can have an effect on the way people think, but this is what
Peter Tillman
Sep 09, 2019 rated it liked it
Off to a rousing start, and written to Gladwell's usual high standards. He does his homework, and surprises us at many turns. The Nature review that follows is full & fair. I doubt that I will find anything substantial to add. But I didn't end up liking the book as much as I expected. 3.5 stars, rounded down for the wandering and discursive narrative, and the inconclusive & disappointing ending.

So: read Nature's review first, and if you are intrigued, and especially if you ha
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 C
David Wineberg
Aug 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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, ...more
Jul 05, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: giveaways
This is certainly a provocative book, enough so that despite my anger and frustration I finished reading it in the hope it would conclude with a complex and thoughtful analysis of why our differences and history result in so much misunderstanding when strangers interact with each other.

Sadly my expectations were not realized. The real life examples that he used were not truly examined in depth and the lack of complexity often left me frustrated. I may just be unable to feel any sympathy for a c
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 t
Sep 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: arcs-2019
In Talking to Strangers, I believe all Malcolm really wants to tell us, is everything our parents use to tell us: 1. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers (or in magazines, or the internet.) 2. Trust only family, not strangers; but be careful everywhere. 3. Don’t believe anything anyone tells you until you check it out first. (This could’ve meant, ask Mom and/or Dad, go to the library, ask someone we know and is smart.)
Most people have their default setting at TRUST; we want to b
Jul 30, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’m always fascinated and provoked by Gladwell’s work—this book is no exception. But there are some big leaps here that make me itchy. Still processing.

Bottom line: We’re generally terrible at understanding the actions of strangers, and when things take a turn for the worse/unexpected, we blame the stranger.

Got it. Feel it. And I like how Gladwell sheds light on the Sandra Bland case. The section on Brock Turner? It troubled me.
Sep 20, 2019 rated it did not like it
If this had just been stories about spies and the meeting between Hernán Cortés and Montezuma or whatever, I would have rated it five stars. There’s no question that Malcolm Gladwell is a good storyteller, I just wish that he would leave it at that and stop trying to shoe-horn a bunch of tall tales into some sort of coherent statement about the state of the world. I’m not a scientist, but I think that I know science when I see it. I ain’t seeing it here.

“The death of Sandra Bland is what h/>“The
Aug 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommended, with a lot of inner conflict and trigger warnings

[Thank you to and Hachette Audio for my free copy of the audiobook for review]

I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan, and I jumped at the chance to listen to his newest release. Gladwell is an excellent reader of his own work, and he takes it up a notch here by translating his book into a full audio production with music, news clips, and voice reenactments. Fans of his podcast, Revisionist History, or other radio shows
In Gladwell's latest work, he explores our misconception and often mistakably inconsistence of innocence or guilt, happy or sad, trustworthy or criminal. Reflecting on historic situations, from Hitler to Sylvia Plath, Bernie Madoff to Amanda Knox, humankind has made slow efforts to uncover what someone else is really feeling or who they truly are. This book does not offer any advice for a quick fix but reminds us all how terribly difficult it is to really "see" the person sitting next to you. I ...more
Megan Bell
Aug 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
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.
Sep 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
What to say about Gladwell? I read everything he writes and I listen to his podcasts. Even as I cringe when he oversells his simplistic theories and misinterprets academic data to fit into cute stories. There are a lot of great stories in this book and some new takes on old ones, but at the end of the day the lens through which he demands we see these stories (i.e. our "default to truth" in talking to strangers) doesn't work. Sandra Bland's exchange with the officer did not result in her death b ...more
Sep 21, 2019 rated it did not like it
I DNF'd this book after reading too many cringey statements from Gladwell. He wants to categorize a whole range of evils -- from the victimization of unarmed black people (Sandra Bland) to women being raped at colleges parties (Brock Turner) -- as mere "communication" issues between people.

Sure, there might be some element of miscommunication, but it completely misses the point that there are much larger problems and bigger things going on beyond that.

I get that he's trying to cram these situa
Sep 19, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Gladwell is an excellent storyteller, but I think he's very wrong on some of his major arguments.

First of all, he seems sort of surprised that people are gullible and that social trust is important for social animals to thrive. He talks about the Milgram experiments, and gets lost in the weeds about how they were bad theater, underemphasizing the main point, i.e. that 65% of people were sheep who obeyed authority figures telling them to do insane evil things. The implication for what he's talki
Peter Mcloughlin
The psychology of how we deal with strangers. We aren't good at detecting lies with strangers, and we often see strangers from our own myopic lenses. Often the conclusions we draw about them says more about us than them. Using famous case studies of incidents like Sandra Bland and Jerry Sandusky and Bernie Madoff our judgments about strangers can lead to disaster in terms of life, mental health and money. Gladwell uses well known examples to illustrate points of psychology and our foibles with ...more
Janet Newport
Sep 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating stuff!

This was an easy read for me. In this book, Mr. Gladwell analyzes some "ripped from the headlines" cases such as the Jerry Sandusky and Bernie Madoff scandals and how they were perputrated for years before finally coming to light. His analysis is within the framework of our normal societal defaults explains why/how these rascals lasted as long as they did.

Well worth the read for me.

4.5 stars rounded up
Renee (itsbooktalk)
Sep 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars

I really enjoyed this audiobook narrated by the author. Fascinating, thought provoking read!
Lindsay Nixon
Sep 20, 2019 rated it liked it
3.75 stars

The audiobook version is effectively a podcast season, complete with sound clips from interviews as well as enhanced audio trimmings.

Historically I have liked his books, and while I found this interesting, I didn’t like it as much.

I feel the same about his podcast. I am impressed by his research and delivery, usually find the topics curious or interesting, but it's rarely a "revelation" (hardly ever a spiritual or intellectual reckoning for me).

If you are an e
Sep 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's pieces for years now in the New Yorker. He writes with insight. I enjoyed this book very much and read it in two days. Gladwell challenges us to take a second look at assumptions. The things we "default" to (and "default" is an important word in this book) may not be as they seem and may lead us off in a direction away from truths or understandings. He demonstrates this by having us look at people and situations in ways we may not default to and thus can see ...more
Bartosz Majewski
Sep 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Gladwell is the king of storytelling. I have read all of his books and listened to dozens of hours of his podcasts. This is a book of great quality (I've listened to it on audible, which I think is the best way to consume this book). If there is a quote it's played as an original. If it's a scene with dialogue - it's reenacted.

Looks like we really suck at the meeting, talking and understanding strangers. Yet, we can't crawl under a rock and stop interacting with them. So we continue
Morelia (Strandedinbooks)
I’m actually very unsure about my rating. Perhaps I stand with 3.5, but let’s stick to 3 for a bit because I’m stuck and have many many thoughts.

For starters, the first half of the audiobook was really good! I appreciated learning about new cases that I’d never even heard about and getting to explore the topic about how and why we suck at talking to or dealing with strangers, but then...

The entire coverage of the Brock Turner case in this one just didn’t sit right with me
Sep 11, 2019 marked it as will-not-read  ·  review of another edition
I have decided to not read this book based on the statement from this review: "I don't know that I actually agree that he can draw a link between the police officer 'misunderstanding' Sandra Bland and Neville Chamberlain “misunderstanding” Hitler and make that work. And I don't know that I agree - actually, no, I'm pretty sure I don't - about the way he views the Stanford rape case as a 'misunderstanding.'" I don't need more hate crime or rape apology in my life.
Feb 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read a sample of this book that I obtained as an employee of Hachette book group. Longer review closer to pub date.
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Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers—The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. He is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, an audio content company that produces the podcasts Revisionist History, which reconsiders things both overlooked and misunderstood, and Broken Record, where he, Rick Rubin, and Bruce Headlam interview musici ...more
“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” 1 likes
“they would have worried for my soul. Pronin calls this phenomenon the “illusion of asymmetric insight.” She writes: The conviction that we know others better than they know us—and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa)—leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.” 0 likes
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