Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell feels more like a must-listen than a must-read. The audiobook is produced like a podcast, making for an even more engaging listen than I am used to. Though the content is pretty triggering, I found it to be very interesting, though Gladwell’s final conclusion felt flawed to me.

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The summary, from Amazon:

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—now with a new afterword by the author.

A Best Book of the Year: The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Chicago Tribune, and Detroit Free Press

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 one another that isn’t true?

Talking to Strangers is a classically Gladwellian intellectual adventure, a challenging and controversial excursion through history, psychology, and scandals taken straight from the news. He revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal at Penn State University, and the death of Sandra Bland—throwing our understanding of these and other stories into doubt.

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. In his first book since his #1 bestseller David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell has written a gripping guidebook for troubled times.

Buy Talking to Strangers here.

Talking to Strangers seeks to examine the strategies we use to analyze those we don’t know and whether those tools are effective. He draws on anecdotes and the experiences of others around a number of narratives, from Cuban spies to Amanda Knox, from Sylvia Plath to Brock Turner, from police officers seeking to identify and stop crime to those who could not believe Jerry Sandusky was a pedophile and continued to work alongside him. Ultimately, Gladwell was inspired by the arrest by Brian Encinia of Sandra Bland and her subsequent suicide. He was saddened and disturbed by the event and wanted to explore more about how it could be prevented.

This was an interesting look at why some people default to truth and believe in the good of people and why others are more suspicious, and why both of these things can work in different circumstances. Gladwell’s final conclusion is that we shouldn’t be punished for defaulting to truth, and that we should be critical of our ability to tell when someone isn’t being truthful. I think overall this is a good conclusion, but the problem is Gladwell talks about a number of people who defaulted to truth to the point of hurting a number of people. If those who worked with Sandusky had done something about it the first time they were told something suspicious was going on, so much trouble could have been avoided, and the same goes for Larry Nassar’s victims. Of course anyone who could have prevented pedophilia and sexual abuse should lose their job. I think a little more specification could have gone into that final chapter.

There are a lot of possible trigger warnings for this title, so I encourage you to do your research before reading this book.

I will say the audiobook version is so worth it. With music and sound bites from the actual people quoted, it “reads” like a podcast. I listened to it at around 1.3x speed. Even if this book is imperfect, I really recommend it.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t KnowTalking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a really interesting book and I highly recommend you give the audiobook a try even if they aren’t your usual thing, because it’s produced like a podcast. I think my only issue was the conclusion the author makes. While I agree that we shouldn’t necessarily punish those who default to truth and that it often is a good thing to do, some of the people who did that he listed in this book totally deserved punishment – their lack of action led to cases of pedophilia, etc.

This is also a HIGHLY triggering read – murder, sexual assault, pedophilia, suicide, and racism are all graphically described. There were times I had to step away.

Even if I don’t think this book was perfect and it’s difficult, I still think it’s a very engaging read with some interesting information and perspectives.

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Book Club Questions

  1. What anecdote impacted you the most in this title?
  2. Did you agree with the author’s conclusion?
  3. What is a stranger?
  4. Do you think you tend to default to truth?
  5. Has there been a time you thought a stranger was lying to you? What made you think that? Did you find out if your suspicious were correct?

Interested? Buy Talking to Strangers.
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